A Victory for Indigenous Rights Over Fossil Fuel Greed

by Kelly Mitchell

May 11, 2016

This Monday, the Obama administration’s Army Corps of Engineers honored the treaty rights of the Lummi Nation and denied a critical permit for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal in Washington state.

Coal trains pass each other in Campbell County. Coal trains are typically a mile long with 100 tons of coal in each of the 100 - 120 cars of the unit train.

© Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

This is a big deal.

Gateway Pacific was the largest proposed coal export terminal in the United States. If built, coal companies like Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak would have been able to ship up to 48 million tons of coal out of the U.S each year. Once burned, that coal would emit more than 80 million tons of carbon per year, the equivalent of 21 new coal-fired power plants. And transporting all that coal from Wyoming and Montana to Washington would have threatened communities and ecosystems with coal dust, diesel fumes, and derailments.

Most importantly, though, it would have had serious and unmitigatable impacts to Xwe’chi’eXen, also known as Cherry Point, Washington, and the surrounding treaty protected waters. For years, leaders from the Lummi Nation have stepped up to defend this sacred site — refusing money from terminal backers, organizing a totem pole journey through the Pacific Northwest and Interior West, and most recently demanding Obama’s Army Corps of Engineers recognize the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights and halt all permitting activity.  

Lummi leaders took a huge risk, putting their treaty rights on the line. But the Army Corps of Engineers honored that demand, hopefully signaling that the U.S. government will respect tribal sovereignty in future decisions. Here’s more on the impact of this decision in the Lummi Nation’s own words:

We are pleased to see that the Corps has honored the treaty and the constitution by providing a decision that recognizes the terminal’s impacts to our fishing rights. This decision is a win for the treaty and protects our sacred site. Our ancient ones at Xwe’chieXen, Cherry Point, will rest protected.

Because of this decision, the water we rely on to feed our families, for our ceremonies and for commercial purposes remains protected. But this is more than a victory for our people; it’s a victory for treaty rights.

Treaty rights shape our region and nation. As tribes across the United States face pressures from development and resource extraction, we’ll continue to see tribes lead the fight to defend their treaty rights, and protect and manage their lands and waters for future generations.

So yes, this is a big deal.

Tens of thousands of folks throughout the Pacific Northwest have been organizing, petitioning, taking direct action, and otherwise speaking out against proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects like Gateway Pacific. This region has kept an incredible amount of carbon in the ground by slowing and blocking the development of coal terminals, gas pipelines, and oil trains. However, the extraordinary leadership of the Lummi Nation proved to be the most important factor in preventing Gateway Pacific from bringing further destruction to the region.

It shouldn’t have to be a historic victory when a developer is barred from building a massive, toxic project on top of a sacred site. Unfortunately, state and federal governments have been all too willing to ignore the rights of tribes and indigenous leaders in order to appease fossil fuel companies.

But today we have reason to celebrate. Gateway Pacific Terminal will forever remain a pipedream for a desperate coal industry looking for a fire exit.

In 2012, there were six proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest. Now only one remains — the Millennium Bulk Terminal.

Join our Power Past Coal allies and send a public comment here to support local activists opposing the Millennium Bulk Terminal! Together, we can keep millions of tons of coal in the ground.

Kelly Mitchell

By Kelly Mitchell

Kelly Mitchell is the Climate and Energy Campaign Director for Greenpeace, based in Chicago. Since 2006, she has worked with activists and organizations across the country to confront corporate polluters and transform U.S. energy policy. She currently leads Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100 percent renewable energy, pushing some of the largest companies in the world to embrace wind and solar and working alongside communities to develop a just and democratic energy system.

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