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Facts, data, science: Environmental protection in today’s era

January 22, 2017


(Photo Credit: Tore Ofteness)

At a time when facts, data and science are under assault from the new government in Washington, D.C., much of our work in the state legislature is to protect the  independence of our state’s interests against an ideologically marauding federal government. At no time in recent generations has the need to protect the integrity of the 10th Amendment been more pronounced.

As the 2017 Legislative Session charges into full speed, in addition to our hands-on work of funding public education under the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, we are focused on protecting our state against the frenzy of federal recklessness in health care, government transparency, trade, independent media and much more.

It is the work of protecting our state’s natural environment, a category that seems to fuel the anti-government passions of the Trump Administration, that calls out for independent, bipartisan reason and the support of checks and balances of governmental decision making.  We now find ourselves in a unique position where a concerted effort between the nominated Secretary of the Interior, Congressman Ryan Zinke, and a leading state champion of Donald Trump, my capable and indefatigable colleague Sen. Doug Ericksen, appear to be systematically targeting reversal of a decision to deny a permit to build the largest coal export terminal in North America near Bellingham, my hometown.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected a sweeping application to build the coal export terminal they based their expansive decision on years of intense independent technical analysis, treaty authority dictated by the U.S. Constitution, virtually unanimous general public sentiment and rigorous scientific examination.

We are reminded today that such independent governmental decisions are, in fact, vulnerable to political influence. They are not an assured, inherent right of government.

As the lead Democrat on the state Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, I am committed to a strong personal and professional working relationship with the majority party in the state Senate. I have high personal regard for the chair and the members of the committee.

Still, in my new role, I find myself reflecting upon the profound moral authority and policy record of our collective hero Dan Evans. The 91-year-old Republican is our state’s only three-term governor and is widely viewed as our premier living statesman. I have written about his influence on me personally and politically before.

In the Trump era, we cannot help but ask who will carry the bipartisan environmental mantle of the Republican Party of Teddy Roosevelt and Dan Evans? Whom among our Republican colleagues of today will hear the small, still voice within us, calling upon our state to responsibly ensure public policy protects our water, air and land for tomorrow’s generations?

If the independent, science-driven coal export decision can be reopened by a new political environment with legislation such as Senate Bill 5171, a bill to effectively strip the state critical review authority, each and every environmental decision is open to undue influence.

We must remind ourselves that facts, process and data matter.

In 2011 Pacific International Terminals (PIT) began the application process to build North America’s largest coal export terminal on the shores of Whatcom County, at a Lummi Nation historic village site and burial ground called Xwe’chieXen, with the 3,000’ x 107’ dock extending over a productive crab fishery. Lummi Nation has the largest fishing fleet on the West Coast and at its peak, employed over 2,000 tribal members.

State and federal agencies initiated a scoping process that ended in early 2013 and drew 124,889 comments from citizens, businesses, agencies, cities and tribes. Without exaggeration, nearly all were in opposition to the mega project.

On January 5th, 2015 the Lummi Nation requested the Army Corps deny the coal export terminal due to its adverse impacts on the Lummi Nation’s protected treaty fishing rights. The Lummi have harvested fish at this location since time immemorial and reserved the right to continue to do so in perpetuity when they signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 with the United States of America. The treaty was crafted, designed and written not by the Lummi Nation but by American officials of the day.

Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties are equal to federal law and take precedence over State constitutions, laws and judicial decisions. The treaty is a reservation of rights held by a sovereign people. It is impossible to defend the integrity of the 1st Amendment and the rest of our sacred constitution and not defend the entirety of the provisions making treaty rights equal.

The Army Corps thoroughly and meticulously reviewed 27 extensive exhibits and studies provided by the Lummi Nation and the well-funded proponent, including a Vessel Traffic and Risk Assessment Study that showed a 76% increase in disruption to fishing if the terminal was built.

It is not a contrived assessment but one based on hard science.

The coal terminal included significant vessel traffic in our waters: 487 annual vessel calls using 318 single-Panamax ships and 169 Capesize ships (so named because they are too large to fit through the Panama Canal). That meant one massive ship would arrive or depart Cherry Point every 18 hours.

After careful consideration of all the information available over sixteen months, the Corps determined the project would in fact harm the Lummi Nation’s treaty right to harvest fish and therefore, on May 9th 2016, responsibly followed the letter and spirit of the law of the land and denied the permit. Shortly after, on June 6th, 2016, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) denied the permit application for an aquatic lease because the proponent had failed to get the required permit from the Army Corps. On January 3rd, 2017 the Commissioner of Public Lands changed the boundary of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve to remove a dock-shaped cut out retained in 2000 for the potential dock.

The state Department of Natural Resources received approximately 5,000 responses in favor of the critical boundary change. Ten letters, including one from the chair of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, opposed the measure.

The data-driven Sightline Institute reminds us that global financial markets are rapidly and forcefully changing the face of the fossil fuel industrial complex.

The old times of massive subsidies from taxpayers, unquestioned permits and denial of treaty rights is over.

State and federal officials in Donald Trump’s shadow now have the power of the pen for a time. But they face a united, engaged and passionate public in our state against allowing Washington to be among the largest exporters of coal on our planet.

Your partner in service,


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