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The Gristle

Xwe’ chi’ eXen

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

XWE’ CHI’ EXEN: Smoldering in the molten furnace of the coal debate are a small number of explosives—potential game changers and deal killers on the transport of coal through the Pacific Northwest.

One is that the major metropolitan population centers of Cascadia might link arms in an organized and meaningful way, making coal export through the region a political (and perhaps regulatory and financial) impossibility.

Another is that the tribal nations would declare a sovereign interest, enforce their treaty rights, and immediately bring the matter into focus at the federal level, drawing in interests of the courts and Congress in a powerful way.

Fuses were touched off last week—even as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Dept. of Ecology and Whatcom County jointly announced that environmental scoping would begin for the proposed Gateway Pacific coal-export facility at Cherry Point. Portland, Ore., became the latest of those Northwest metro areas to link arms on the issue of coal trains, with Eugene, Ore., expected to follow with a similar resolution later this month. And Lummi Nation held a moving ceremony at Cherry Point last week, all but condemning the construction of the coal pier there.

There exist, of course, other potential game changers; but the effect of this one-two punch on the eve of scoping is to transform the entire tenor of the debate from one of an initial celebration of industrial resurgence, to that of passive acceptance that powerful and nigh-unstoppable extractive oligarchies have at last focused their destructive lens on our region, to one of active resistance. A process understood at the outset that would define the surrender of how this project would be permitted becomes instead a symposium on how this project might be rejected; and in that becomes a defining moment in the collective identity of Cascadia.

The Lummi gathering was particularly forceful—with strong, resonant recitals from tribal elders of the importance of Xwe’ chi’ eXen, a natural and cultural heritage site of identity to the tribe for 175 generations. A large symbolic check, written out in the sum of hundreds of millions of dollars, was stenciled over as “Non-negotiable.” The check was burned at the end of their solemn ceremony.

While tribal leaders did not entirely rule out accepting an interagency ruling on the scope of the GPT environmental impact statement, their ceremony suggests they will demand a high standard in that scoping.

Testament to its profound impact, the gathering drew an immediate and alarmed reaction from executives at SSA Marine, parent company behind Pacific International Terminals, the project applicant.

“SSA Marine takes its relationship with Lummi very seriously,” SSA Marine Senior Vice President Bob Watters said in a statement.

“We will take special precautions to protect cultural resources on the GPT property, including restricting public access, while ensuring long-term access for Lummi members to cultural resources for ceremonial purposes,” he said, promising diligence in protecting the marine environment and Lummi heritage sites.

“Lummi fishers have also made it very clear to us how central fishing is to the tribe, both economically and culturally,” Watters said. “We are committed to addressing Lummi concerns in detail.”

The added risk for SSA Marine is that other tribal nations along the export route may join Lummi leadership in asserting their sovereign treaty rights in the environmental scoping of the GPT project, expanding powerful claims of impacts and calls for mitigation far beyond Cherry Point and Custer.

In an analogous vein, Portland joined Seattle, Spokane and other Northwest metropolitan communities last week to unanimously oppose coal trains entering Oregon through that city until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fully evaluates the impacts of exporting coal to Asia through the Northwest.

Anti-coal groups and Portland neighborhood leaders cited potential hazards from long, uncovered trains, including diesel pollution, coal dust, noise, traffic delays and reduced property values. Others made arguments similar to those from other cities, that a policy to export coal runs counter to efforts that encourage renewable power and reduce the emission of climate-changing pollutants.

While tribal and city efforts seek similar goals, they proceed from dissimilar sets of imperatives. The cities perceive the issue as an inverse-square problem, where they remain far from the intensity of economic benefits while enduring all of the impacts. Gaining little, they have much to lose. The tribes see all this coming their way in a profound and deeply personal challenge to a hereditary way of life. Not lost on the tribes is a dark history in which U.S. energy and environmental land-use policy has stripped resources and value from the lands of many indigenous people around the continent.

The constriction of coal exits in Oregon pressures the issue back into Washington, with Xwe’ chi’ eXen—the Lummi name for Cherry Point—rapidly becoming the last really viable option for a new coal port of any size operating on the West Coast of the United States.

It’s ironic indeed that as Whatcom County becomes Ground Zero in the regional coal debate, its population center—the City of Bellingham—continues to struggle to find a voice on the issue. Bellingham City Council has found itself struggling to adopt responsive resolutions even as toothless and non-binding as the Portland model.

Two weeks ago, council withdrew yet another proposal, this one seeking funding for an independent health impact assessment of GPT. Their reasons were sound, even prudent, as they wait for optimal study partners, but adds to a collective unease that Bellingham is just not ready to take a principled lead on what’s perhaps the defining issue of the city’s future.

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