The Yakama Nation vs. Coal Pollution

Michael O'Leary

"The Ambre Energy Morrow Pacific proposal to build a new dock for coal barges in Boardman, Oregon threatens to violate the health of our lands, the health of our people, and violates the rights and privileges reserved for us by our ancestors." ~Jode Goudy, Chairman of the Yakama Nation

Tribal objection to coal pollution like the objections of conservationists and sportsmen alike has seemingly been not enough to stop coal from threatening the fisheries of the Columbia River.

After all, no less than the New York Times has been detailing the opposition of Native American tribes to northwest coal export proposals since 2012, as have flagship tribal media outlets, and tribal organizations themselves.

Yet the Corps of Engineers still doesn't feel the need to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement review, despite the tons of coal dust and acid rain getting ready to roll into our waters as a result.

And just this spring the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved three coal export permits as if it were business as usual.

But something important seems to be changing.

When Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber made his most recent comment on coal exports, he proclaimed his opposition to coal and the grounds he cited was "that the proposed facility would destroy at least three Native American fishing sites protected by the treaty"

What the Governor is referring to is the Treaty of 1855 between the United States and the Yakama Nation that guarantees, in exchange for land and peace offered by the Yakama, that the Yakama people would forever enjoy the right to fish in all their usual and accustomed places, and the right to live free of damages to those rights.

What that means is that not only must our governments allow traditional tribal fishing, but they must also preserve those traditional fisheries and the habitat they require.

Importantly though, only the Governor's rhetoric has changed, so far. The permit is still pending.

But the fact that Governor Kitzhaber is acknowledging his duties to uphold tribal treaty rights and highlighting those rights is exceptional, and that must be giving the investors and the pr firms that are counting on coal more than enough reason to start hedging their bets.

If coal exports are halted as a direct result of tribal opposition, than not only will we have Governor Kitzhaber to thank, but also the Yakama Nation and other tribal leaders as well, for taking a stand that will benefit all of us, and the salmon, for generations to come.

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