FERNDALE, Wash. — At age 94, Mary Helen Cagey, an elder of the Lummi Indian tribe, has seen a lot of yesterdays. Some are ripe for fond reminiscence, like the herring that used to run rich in the waters here in the nation’s upper-left margin, near the border with Canada. Others are best left in the past, she said, like coal.
“I used to travel into Bellingham and buy my sack of coal," she said, standing in sensible shoes on a pebbled beach at a recent tribal news conference, talking about her girlhood of rural subsistence and occasional trips to the nearby market town. The idea that coal producers would make a comeback bid, with a huge export shipping terminal proposed at a site where she once fished, called Cherry Point, is simply wrong, she said. “It’s something that should not come about," Cagey said.
Many environmental groups and green-minded politicians in the Pacific Northwest are on record as opposing a wave of export terminals proposed from here to the south-central coast of Oregon, aiming to ship coal to Asia. But in recent weeks, Indian tribes have been linking arms as well, citing possible injury to fishing rights and religious and sacred sites if the coal should spill or the dust from its trains and barges should waft too thick.
And as history has demonstrated over and over, especially in this part of the nation, from protecting fish habitats to removing dams, a tribal-environmental alliance goes far beyond good public relations. The cultural claims and treaty rights that tribes can wield — older and materially different, Indian law experts say, than any argument the Sierra Club or its allies might muster about federal air quality rules or environmental review — add a complicated plank of discussion that courts and regulators have found hard to ignore.
Lummi tribal leaders recently burned a mock million-dollar check in a ceremonial statement that money could never buy their cooperation. Last month, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a regional congress of more than 50 tribes in seven states, passed a resolution demanding a collective environmental impact statement for the proposed ports, rather than project-by-project statements, which federal regulators have suggested.
Leaders of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which focuses on fishing rights, said in a statement in support of the resolution that moving millions of tons of coal through the region could affect a range of issues, like road traffic and economic life on the reservations, not to mention the environment.
“It brings another set of issues to the table," said Gov. John Kitzhaber, who this year asked for a broad federal environmental review that would examine implications of the coal plan from transit through the region by train or barge to the burning of the coal in China. The tribes, Kitzhaber said, have now added a voice that even a governor cannot match. “It definitely increases the pressure," he said.
Coal producers across the nation have been wounded by a sharp drop in demand in the United States — down 16.3 percent in the period from April through June, compared with the same period in 2011, to the lowest quarterly level since 2005, according to the most recent federal figures. With prices falling and abundant supplies of natural gas flowing because of new fields and drilling technologies, especially hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, many electricity producers that can switch are doing so.
That has made coal exports, which have increased this year in every region of the country except the West, according to federal figures, even more crucial to the industry than they were when the six terminals on the Pacific Coast were first proposed. Jason Hayes, a spokesman for the American Coal Council, said that with coal-producing nations like Australia and Indonesia competing for Asian markets, a roadblock on the West Coast is an issue for the entire American economy.
The first public hearings for the terminal projects, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, are set to begin this month in Bellingham, near the Lummi reservation.
An executive order dating from the administration of Bill Clinton could give further ammunition to Northwest tribes in their coal fight, Krakoff and other experts said. The order directs federal agencies to allow tribal access to sacred sites and to take into account religious practices in federal decision making.