Billings Gazette: House vote stops coastal Indians from blocking port for Montana coal

Plans for a controversial port in Puget Sound for Montana coal will advance under a House rider preventing coastal Indians from stopping the project.

House lawmakers lead by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., voted to keep the permitting process going for the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham, Wash. The Lummi Nation, which has fishing waters next to Cherry Point, had asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to abandon its review of the port proposal. The Lummi argued that its treaty rights would be violated by the terminal.

However, Montana’s Crow Tribe made a counter argument that its treaty rights to profit from coal mined on land in the southeastern part of the state were in danger if the port plans were killed. The Crow have coal to ship and a stake in the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

Zinke said as a result of the House action, both tribes’ concerns will be heard as the environmental review for Gateway Pacific Terminal continues. The biggest piece of that review is an environmental impact statement expected in March 2016.

Environmental impact statements are required reports for major projects. The reports advise the public and government agencies about a project’s potential negative consequences and presents alternatives for avoiding or reducing those consequences.

“This is not about the Lummi tribe versus the Crow. This is about fairness,” Zinke said. “We put a process in place where the EIS goes through. If the Army Corps were to have given judgment before the EIS, it would have been unprecedented and unfair.”

Lummi Nation representatives were in Washington, D.C., this week attempting to turn back Zinke’s rider. In an open letter published in The Hill, Tim Ballew, chairman of the Lummi Business Council, said Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., were benefiting corporate coal interests by undermining Lummi treaty rights

Daines, who had worked earlier to keep permitting for the Gateway Pacific Terminal on track, credited Zinke for the House vote.

“The Gateway Pacific Terminal will help create thousands of good-paying Montana jobs and provide the Crow Tribe a greater ability to increase economic opportunity for their people,” Daines said. “I appreciate Representative Zinke’s work to move forward this provision to ensure the Corps completes a full review of this proposal and allows all stakeholders’ voices to be heard in this process.”

The Lummi did not respond to interview requests by The Gazette before press time. Nowhere in The Hill letter did Ballew mention the Crow Tribe, which owns a lion’s share of the coal expected to ship from Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The Crow Tribe has a contract to sell 1.4 billion tons of coal to Cloud Peak Energy. The deal has paid $3.75 million so far, with the potential for another $10 million to the tribe as mining develops in the project’s first phase. The tribe argues that it has a treaty right to profit from the natural resources of its land.

Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said the House vote Wednesday will benefit all tribes moving forward, not just the Crow.

“Without this process, it kind of alienates everybody that has a stake in every type of project,” Old Coyote told The Gazette. “This is the way everybody has a chance, and there’s not going to be an overreach by any federal agency.”