Tribal opposition could officially derail the permitting process for the hotly contested Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) at Cherry Point.
In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on July 30, representatives of the Lummi Nation officially declared their “unconditional and unequivocal opposition” to the GPT, claiming the project would disrupt protected Lummi fishing sites. The move could put a halt to the GPT project if a compromise cannot be reached.
In the letter, Lummi Indian Business Council chair Tim Ballew wrote “The Lummi Nation cannot see how the proposed projects could be developed in a manner that does not amount to significant impairment on the treaty fishing right and a negative effect on the Lummi way of life.”
The GPT project was first proposed in 2011 by SSA Marine, a Bellingham-based port management company, and is backed by investment firm Goldman Sachs and Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world. If built, the GPT site at Cherry Point would be the largest exporter of coal in North America. The 350-acre terminal would be serviced by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, and would require upgrades to the existing tracks to accommodate the new volume. The total cost of the project is estimated to be around $600 million.
The new terminal would require up to 18 coal trains to pass through the area each day, nine full and nine empty. Each coal train would be made up of 150 cars and be roughly 1.5 miles long, a fact that has raised concerns about traffic congestion near the tracks.
The opposition from the Lummi Nation is the first of two significant impacts to the GPT project in a week. On July 31, Whatcom County officials, in conjunction with the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, announced the scope for a joint environmental impact statement (EIS).
The statement will initiate a sweeping review of a number of economic, environmental and health concerns that the GPT project raises. These studies are typically prepared when a project is determined to be a likely source of negative environmental impacts, according to the EIS website.
Treaty rights for the Lummi and other local tribes will be taken into account, according to the EIS website.
The EIS will also evaluate economic, environmental and health concerns that have been raised in regards to the GPT project. Impacts to the land, sea and air, the effects of inhaling coal dust and the projected traffic congestion for communities along the rail lines will each be evaluated in the study, which is expected to release its findings in two years.
Additionally, the EIS will consider the indirect effects that the project might cause, such as the greenhouse gases released from burning coal in Asia and the potential long-term impacts to commerce in communities near the railways.
The EIS ruling is in response to nearly 125,000 public comments that were made at seven different hearings throughout the state and through extensive letter-writing campaigns during the public commenting period.
Bob Watters, senior vice president for SSA Marine, said he hasn’t given up on trying to reach common ground.
“We understand how important our relationship is with the Lummis, and we take it very seriously,” Watters said. “There are a number of things we want to discuss that would address their needs and concerns.”
Watters said there are opportunities to enhance the land near the site, such as restoring streams and salmon habitats that have been diverted by ditches and county roads.
“We want to make their situation better, but we need more time to sit down and address their needs,” he said.
For more information on the EIS and the areas included in the study, visit eisgatewaypacificwa.gov
for details and frequently asked questions.