OLYMPIA—A Washington State Senate committee is considering a bill that would require designation of aquatic reserves be approved by the Legislature—and would rescind an earlier expansion of an aquatic reserve that includes an area that is environmentally sensitive and sacred to the Lummi Nation.
The bill would also significantly lower the cost for an easement on aquatic lands.
Leaders of seven Native nations spoke against Senate Bill 5171 at a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee. The bill was introduced by state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Bellingham, a supporter of the coal shipping terminal that had been proposed at the Lummi Nation site known as Cherry Point, or Xwe’chieXen.
As of the end of January, the bill had not advanced out of committee.
Pacific International Terminals had proposed building a coal-shipping terminal, Gateway Pacific Terminal, at Xwe’chieXen; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit last May, saying the terminal would have adverse impacts on the Lummi Nation’s treaty fishing rights.
Cherry Point is an important spawning ground for herring, a forage fish for salmon. The Army Corps also considers Cherry Point to be critical habitat for king salmon, bull trout, rockfish and three pods of killer whales. Other endangered or threatened species found at Cherry Point are Puget Sound steelhead, Stellar sea lions, humpback whales, leatherback sea turtles, marbled murrelets and spotted frogs.
On January 3, the state’s then–commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark, expanded the state’s aquatic reserve to include Cherry Point, giving the site additional protection. Prior to Goldmark’s decision, the state Department of Natural Resources received more than 5,000 comments in support of expanding the reserve and 10 in opposition.
Native leaders worried that rescinding Xwe’chieXen’s inclusion in the aquatic reserve, and the protections the inclusion brings, would jeopardize an already burdened environment.
Spokane Tribe Vice Chairman Dave Browneagle talked of invasive species that have been introduced by discharged ballast water from ships.
Lummi Nation Council member Nikolaus JutsKadim Lewis remembered the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the fishery in Alaska, and said some three million gallons of fuel or oil leaks or spills into the Salish Sea each year.
Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon spoke of fishing at Xwe’chieXen, of the sockeye he’s caught there, of the healthy herring population there in the 1970s.
“They’ve disappeared, almost,” he said of the herring. “There hasn’t been a herring fishery [there] for years.”
Lummi Nation Chairman Timothy Ballew II said Xwe’chieXen is still a rich and fertile marine environment and that after years of environmental degradation, “it’s essential we protect what remains.” He said the current process to establish aquatic reserves helps do that, with a public process that is “rigorous, thoughtful [and] scientific.”
Browneagle reminded the committee that all people—Indians and non-Indians alike—benefit from a healthy environment.
“What happens to you happens to me,” he said. “What happens to your children happens to my children. What happens to your water happens to my water. We all drink the same water.”
The Bill’s Sponsor
In addition to supporting the proposed coal shipping terminal, Ericksen, SB 5171’s sponsor, wants Gov. Jay Inslee to ease a requirement that industries gradually reduce carbon emissions, and ease the pollution restrictions in his toxics reduction initiative. Inslee wants to make water cleaner so fish are safer to eat. Currently, the recommended fish consumption rate is set at 6.5 grams a day per person—equivalent to one bite of fish. The initiative would improve the consumption rate to 175 grams a day per person, equivalent to one small filet.
On his website Ericksen wrote that those tougher restrictions “raise the cost of energy, harm manufacturing jobs, and make it much more difficult to attract new jobs … [creating] a perverse incentive for companies to shutter their Washington plants and move jobs overseas or to other states.”
Jobs vs. Treaty Rights and the Environment
According to the state Department of Natural Resources, an aquatic reserve designation provides more environmental protection “through preservation, restoration and enhancement,” “greater public input in conservation management,” and collaboration with residents and governments, including Native Nations, “to develop and implement management plans.”
Even though the Army Corps rejected the coal-shipping terminal permit, it’s easy to see why the Lummi Nation and others come to the defense of any additional protection of Cherry Point.
Getting here wasn’t easy.
Pacific International Terminals is a subsidiary of SSA Marine, which in turn is one of three companies owned by Carrix, an international company. According to its website, Carrix’s companies operate marine and rail terminals and warehouses in 250 location on five continents. In addition, Carrix is one of the largest rail yard operators in the world.
SSA Marine’s proposal to build what would have been the largest coal-shipping terminal in the U.S. pitted the promise of jobs against environmental concerns and the authority of a treaty between the U.S. and several Coast Salish nations. The proposal picked up public support during the recession, when Whatcom County’s unemployment rate topped 11 percent—and Carrix et al made $2.8 million in campaign contributions over 12 years to bolster political support for the proposal.
Carrix et al made contributions to Democrats and Republicans (including Inslee and Goldmark), but its largest contributions were to the Whatcom County Republican Party ($42,000), the Washington State Republican Party ($30,000), and Save Whatcom, an organization that supported the proposed coal shipping terminal ($22,000).
The company also contributed more than $60,000 in its Clear Ballot Choices political action committee, which supported ballot propositions to change voting for Whatcom County Council members to district-only, limit the authority of the county council to amend the county charter, and redistrict county council districts.
In the end, the Army Corps sided with the treaty, essentially saying increased shipping and pollution in the area would harm Native fisheries. If you harm fisheries, the treaty is violated. And according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, treaties are “the supreme law of the land.”
Mel Tonasket, vice chairman of the Colville Federated Tribes and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, warned the state Senate committee that removing Cherry Point from the aquatic reserve would likely end up in court.
“Even today, whether at Standing Rock or Cherry Point, we are seeing people willing to endanger the environment and Native peoples’ way of life,” Tonasket said. “It makes no sense to end the sound environmental practices of the United States government and the state of Washington … As the committee chairman is well aware, there are crabbing beds and fisheries that are endangered by placement of any oil storage or transfer facilities in or around Puget Sound.”
He added, “I would raise the question to you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, why go down a path that guarantees litigation resulting in more money for lawyers and less money for working people and fishermen and the loss of a beautiful habitat?”
Meanwhile, Whatcom County’s economy has improved since support for the terminal peaked. The county’s unemployment rate is the eighth lowest of 39 counties in Washington State.
“From 2010 to 2015, Whatcom County recovered 7,500 jobs, reaching and exceeding the pre-recession peak,” according to regional labor economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman. “As the recovery has matured, most industries have registered employment gains. Average annual employment in 2015 was 1,500 jobs above Whatcom County’s pre-recession peak and most industries joined the recovery as of 2012. From 2014 to 2015, all major industries reported year-to-year growth.”