Flickr, Alan Bell

As if we needed more evidence that the companies promoting coal exports may be facing years of uncertainty, delay, and legal fees…a great piece that ran in The New York Times last week explored the growing role that the Northwest’s Native American tribes are playing in the export coal debate:

The cultural claims and treaty rights that tribes can wield — older and materially different, Indian law experts say, than any argument that the Sierra Club or its allies might muster about federal air quality rules or environmental review — add a complicated plank of discussion that courts and regulators have found hard to ignore.

Coal exports pose risks to both fish habitat and sacred places—which has ignited swift, unified opposition among tribal groups:

  • “Since time immemorial, the culture and livelihood of the Columbia River Basin tribes have been closely tied with the river…In the last decade, fish have been returning to the river in ever-increasing numbers and the tribes have been able to restore some of their traditional fisheries, but the balance is still fragile. Projects such as the Morrow Pacific Project will undoubtedly put more pressure on the fisheries and are a major step backward from the forward momentum of current efforts…CRITFC strongly recommends that the Corps initiate a programmatic environmental review to broadly analyze the other projects in the Basin, i.e., the Longview and the St. Helens projects. While each of these proposals will present unique circumstances, in the aggregate they create similar issues that will have profound detrimental effects to the tribes, the communities and the environment of the Columbia River.”

    • Individual tribes, including the Nez Perce in Idaho, the Yakama Nation in Eastern Washington, (not just once but twice), and the Lummi Nation are all on record supporting a thorough environmental review of the impacts of coal exports. The Lummi, who consider the site of one proposed terminal as a sacred place, recently staged a protest—well covered by the media—in which they symbolically burned a million dollar check, signalling their refusal to trade in their cultural heritage for money; and they’ve created an anti-coal export website, treatyprotection.org. Meanwhile, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, comprising the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people, are also on record supporting a comprehensive EIS for the Port of Morrow coal export facility.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. On matters of land, water, air, and wildlife, the tribes can be powerful foes. Their opposition is making investments in coal export facilities just that much riskier.