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Army Corps Of Engineers Blocks Pacific Northwest Coal Terminal

May 10, 2016
Originally published on May 18, 2016 9:09 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Army Corps of Engineers has dealt the coal industry a blow in a battle with significance not just for coal companies but for Indian tribes. The Corps denied approval for a new coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest. Montana's Crow tribe had hoped to get an economic boost from the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The Lummi tribe in Washington state had opposed it. Our story begins with KUOW's Ashley Ahearn at the Lummi reservation.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: The tribal council called a meeting and invited elders and young people from the community. The room was packed, but it fell silent when Lummi Chairman Timothy Ballew started to play a recording of the phone call he had with the Corps just about an hour earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLONEL JOHN BUCK: Hey, chairman, this is Colonel John Buck from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers...

AHEARN: The Lummi tribe has been waiting for this news for more than four years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUCK: I wanted to let you know that we've a decision on the permit, which was a denial without prejudice.

(APPLAUSE)

AHEARN: The Lummis signed a treaty with the federal government 150 years ago that guaranteed the tribe access to fish these coastal waters. The coal terminal would have interfered with that treaty right. So the tribe has been pushing the feds to remember their side of the bargain and deny the permits. And Chairman Timothy Ballew says those efforts have finally paid off.

TIMOTHY BALLEW: I feel that this is a win for the Constitution, a win for the treaty, and I feel that the ancient ones up at Cherry Point will rest protected. It's a good day.

AHEARN: But on the Crow reservation, Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney says the news has not been well received.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: The reservation is in the heart of the Powder River Basin, the nation's most productive coal region. The tribe was going to own 5 percent of the new terminal and reap tens of millions of dollars in coal sales. Tribal member and educator Jason Cummins says Crow people care about environmental impacts from exporting coal but...

JASON CUMMINS: I would say in the immediate picture of things if a family has an empty fridge and an empty cupboard, you know, maybe sometimes their concerns are a little more immediate and a little more down to earth.

AHEARN: Unemployment here runs 50 percent or more. For decades, local coal mines have provided some of the few good, steady jobs on and around the reservation. The tribe also distributes revenue from coal sales to tribal members several times a year. Roberta Other Medicine works at the local hospital. She says she's concerned about climate change and that there will be short and long-term consequences if the Crow don't export their coal.

ROBERTA OTHER MEDICINE: That would be a good thing for my great-grandchildren. It wouldn't be a good thing for me and my children, if that makes sense.

WHITNEY: A statement from tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote says he's, quote, "deeply disappointed in the Corps." He says they disregarded Crow treaty rights, failed to meaningfully consult with the tribe and should have prepared a full environmental impact statement before deciding on Gateway Pacific.

AHEARN: Here in Washington state, they backers of the terminal released a statement saying the Corps' denial of the permit, quote, "sends a dangerous signal to people who were eager for jobs." But on the Lummi reservation, the announcement was cause for celebration and a blessing from a tribal elder.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Great-grandfather, creator, we thank you for this day.

AHEARN: Then a group of young Lummi tribal members picked up their drums and led the crowd out into the great hall.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

AHEARN: The coal terminal backers may sue the Army Corps for denying the permit and the battle could continue. But for now, the Lummi are celebrating.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

AHEARN: For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn on a Lummi Indian reservation in Washington.

WHITNEY: And in southeastern Montana, I'm Eric Whitney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.