Pacific Northwest tribes – saying they are faced with the possibility of impacts to human health, natural resources and economies – last week called on the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to conduct a full environmental analysis for all six proposals to transport and export coal through their shared lands and waters.
Of six known proposals, three have progressed far enough to request permission from the Corp under the Clean Water Act, and the Rivers and Harbors Act, to construct transport facilities at Boardman at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River; at Longview, Wash., also on the lower Columbia; and at Cherry Point near Bellingham, Wash.
The resolution approved last week by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians stemmed from discussions at the Northwest Tribal Coal Summit organized by the Association of Washington Tribes and the Coast Salish Gathering in conjunction with the ATNI fall convention hosted by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Mission at Pendleton, Ore.
Driven by Asian demand and declining domestic consumption of coal, export proposals have sprung up at a variety of Oregon and Washington ports. Six proposals call for transporting Powder River basin coal from Montana through Indian and non-Indian lands in the Northwest via rail and barge.
Tribal communities have expressed concern about the health and safety impacts from environmental dangers of coal dust.
“Along the Columbia River, it’s cliff, highway, railroad, then river. Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “If we cannot escape, neither will the coal.”
The Tulalip Tribes expressed their concern both environmentally and economically. Tulalip is one of the largest economic engines in the region, along with Boeing. The Tulalips say that an increase in rail traffic along the Interstate 5 corridor will bring traffic in the area to a halt, blocking access to businesses, hospitals and fire stations.
“The risks not only to our tribe can be devastating, but also to the entire county,” said Tulalip Chairman Mel Sheldon. “We’ve made substantial retail investments that depend heavily on quality of life, and we have collaborated with local citizens to restore and protect our watersheds. We are tracking this carefully, and plan to express our decision on this new threat in the near future.”
Tribal leaders were addressed by Col. Anthony Funkhouser, commander of the Northwest Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose agency has federal permitting authority over coal export terminals through the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act. The Corps announced recently they would conduct an “environmental assessment” on the Port of Morrow proposal for a new export coal terminal. The tribes are asking that a more rigorous “environmental impact statement” process be conducted that addresses all six proposals as one.
The Corps says that the decision to proceed with an environmental assessment for the Boardman proposal is a first step. The end point of that process could be a decision to proceed with a more exhaustive EIS.
“A determination has not been made” about whether to launch into a full EIS process, said the Corps’ Michael Coffey. She called the EA process a starting point.
“We need to follow the process,” Coffey said. A more comprehensive review covering all of the proposed projects is something that could be considered.
“We haven’t ruled that out. But we aren’t far enough along in the process” to make that decision, Coffey said. The Corps permitting authority is focused on on-site construction activities and impacts.
“We don’t want the minimum protection any longer, we’re used to getting the minimum.” said Brooklyn Baptiste, vice-chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. “We deserve the maximum attention and expect the lead and coordinating agencies to provide the full environmental studies on all ports, as they will be making one of the largest decisions impacting human health, the environment and economies of not only our tribal communities, but of our neighboring citizens of the Northwest.”
Kathryn “Kat” Brigham, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Board of Trustees, urged tribal leaders to reach out to neighboring communities, saying “they have something at risk too.”
Ambre Energy subsidiary Coyote Island Terminals, LLC has applied for a Department of the Army permit to build a new coal transfer facility at the Port of Morrow at Boardman, which is about 268 river miles upstream of the mouth of the Columbia in the reservoir behind the federal John Day Dam.
As proposed, coal would be brought to the facility via rail, transferred to barges, shipped down the Columbia River to Port Westward near Clatskanie, Ore., and loaded onto ocean-going vessels for export.
The facility would include walkways, a fixed dock and a conveyor system for loading coal, along with enclosed warehouses in the uplands for storing coal prior to loading onto the barges. About 140 permanent piles ranging from 14 to 24 inches in diameter and 110 temporary 16-inch diameter piles would be installed to complete the project. More 15,000 square feet of new overwater structure would be constructed.
In addition to the request for a full environmental impact statement, the resolution passed by the fifty-seven member tribes of ATNI called for full transparency and government-to-government consultation throughout the entire decision making process at the local, state and federal levels.
“We believe the Northwest is interconnected through the families, resources and waterways, that these coal terminals and railway routes should be addressed in a holistic manner,” said Chairman Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe. “If a coal train or tanker were to spill on the route or in the river at Port Morrow in Oregon, the water ways will carry the pollution throughout the Northwest, and coal dust will be carried through the mountains in the air we all breathe.”
“The idea of a half-dozen new coal export terminals in western Washington and Oregon - and the hundreds of trains and barges running from Montana and Wyoming every day to deliver that coal - would threaten our environment and quality of life like nothing we have seen before,” Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, said. “Coal may be a cheap source of energy for other countries, but these export facilities and increased train traffic would come at a great cost to our health, natural resources and communities.”
The resolution says the Northwest tribes have strong concerns about the impact the coal transport proposals might have on tribal rights and resources, including:
-- Intrusions into traditional fishing, hunting and gathering sites;
-- Destruction of cultural and religious areas;
-- Degradation of human health, related to fugitive coal dust and mercury poisoning;
-- Interference with tribal business enterprises and opportunities, causing a loss of jobs, preventing jobs growth, and reducing tribal income related to increased coal-train traffic;
-- Declining water quality and loss of salmon and lamprey habitat from barging and shipping operations;
-- Increases in emergency response times, interference with school functions, and fiscal impacts on other public services due to delays at train crossings;
-- Filling of shorelines, wetlands, and streams, during expansion or reconstruction of rail lines along the Columbia River, the Salish Sea, and their tributaries;
-- Climate change, sea level rise, and ocean acidification from coal-fired power plants; and
-- Overall degradation of the tribes’ natural resources and culture.
Portland-based CRITFC is the technical support and coordinating agency for fishery management policies of the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and the Nez Perce tribes.