By Chris Winters
The Everett Daily Herald
Monday’s decision by the federal government to deny a permit for a coal-shipping terminal at Cherry Point has sweeping implications for people across Whatcom County, and the state.
Rail crossings, Native American treaty rights, the debate over shipping fossil fuels by rail — all those issues are in play.
The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point was intended to be one of the largest ports for export of U.S. coal to markets in Asia. SSA Marine and Cloud Peak Energy proposed shipping coal by rail from Montana and Wyoming to the terminal.
The Lummi Nation opposed the project and asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny the terminal’s permit. The Lummi were joined by several other local tribes in opposing the plan, including the Tulalip Tribes and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
On the other hand, one tribe, the Crow Nation of Montana, which has coal mining interests, signed a deal in 2015 to take a 5 percent stake in the terminal if it had been approved.
On Monday the Army Corps denied a permit application for the terminal, ruling that it would infringe on the Lummi’s treaty-guaranteed fishing rights.
However, other projects might still come back. SSA Marine might alter its project proposal to avoid conflicts with tribal rights.
Or the company might sue the federal government over the decision.
Or another company could come along with a different proposal, starting the whole process over again.
“I think one of things I get out of this is, there is a process, and when we stay with the process, it works,” Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon Jr. said.
Beyond the principle of defending treaty rights, the Tulalip Indian Reservation would also experience direct effects by the increase in train traffic just on the other side of I-5.
“What we worried about is emergency services that have to cross the tracks,” Sheldon said. “A delay could be very painful.”
The Tulalips also keep an eye on tanker traffic in Puget Sound, which sometimes passes through tribal fishing areas.
“In the late ’80s and ’90s when there were more fish around, the fishermen would get on the radio and talk to Seattle traffic or the ships themselves, demonstrating that we could work together,” Sheldon said.
On the other side of I-5, Marysville has long borne the brunt of rail traffic, including oil trains rolling to the refineries in Anacortes and Ferndale.
“In the last 4 to 5 years the increase in congestion is noticeable due to rail traffic,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.
The defeat of Gateway Pacific Terminal means only that rail congestion will worsen at a somewhat slower pace.
A report prepared for the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2014 predicted freight rail traffic in Washington growing 130 percent to 238 million tons of cargo by 2035, even without the Cherry Point coal terminal.
That would amount to 27 to 31 more trains per day between Seattle and Spokane and up to 10 more per day between Everett and Vancouver, B.C.
Dealing with the effects of increased fossil fuel production is not something any one municipality can take on by itself, especially when their interests conflict with those of railroads or interstate oil and coal companies. Leaders from some Puget Sound-area cities and tribes have joined forces in the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, with the explicit goal of monitoring rising fossil fuel shipments and protecting communities from negative effects.
Even outside the alliance, there’s recognition that the solution to problems connected to the coal and oil industries need more resources than what’s at hand.
For the tribes such as Tulalip, protecting their treaty rights is an ongoing process that also requires working together. In the case of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, that proved successful.
“We all have a common concern and a quality of life that each of us tries to give to our citizens, and when that becomes endangered we all coalesce together,” Sheldon said.