Oil Check Washington

Swinomish Lawsuit against BNSF, just the latest example of local tribes against coal and oil

April 9th 2015 - The Swinomish Reservation lies between Anacortes and La Conner in Skagit County Washington. Residing on what is known as Fidalgo Island, this tribal community is the last point before rail traffic turns towards refineries in Anacortes owned by Shell and Tesoro.

The Swinomish are currently suing BNSF for breaking a signed agreement between the tribe and the railroad for bringing in oil trains at 4 times the rate they agreed upon.

From Seattle Times article: “A deal is a deal,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby in a statement released Tuesday. “Our signatures were on the agreement with BNSF, so were theirs. So was the United States. But despite all that, BNSF began running its Bakken oil trains across the reservation without asking, and without even telling us.”

The situation could become even worse for the tribe. Shell is currently seeking permits to increase rail capacity to receive 6 more oil trains a week. Shell has a track record of abuse and misconduct with the Swinomish. In February, the Swinomish filed complains with the EPA after dozens of tribal members become hospitalized from fumes released by the Shell refinery.

The Swinomish are on the front lines of the damage wrought by fossil fuels in our community. But they aren’t alone. Tribes across the Northwest have been in constant conflict with oil and gas companies.

In 2011, the would-be builder of the Gateway Pacific coal terminal near Bellingham damaged local Lummi Nation burial grounds while constructing on wetlands without permits.

The Lummi subsequently burned a mock check from the terminal proponents at the site of the planned coal terminal in a pivotal moment that galvanizing local communities. Continuing their leadership against coal and oil in the Northwest, they led a faith-based totem pole tour across the Northwest and through out British Columbia and Alberta to protest local fossil fuel mega projects.


In April 2013, tribal leaders joined then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in the Leadership Alliance, a coalition against coal export.

Tulalip Tribes Chairman Melvin Sheldon said:

“When it comes to coal… the negative potential of what it does to our Northwest—we stand with you to say no to coal. As a matter of fact, the Tulalip say ‘hell no’ to coal.”

Billy Frank, Jr. was a beloved local tribal leader and fierce activist for native rights and sovereignty who recently passed away. He was a persistent voice in opposition to Northwest fossil fuel exports. In one of the last things he wrote, he expressed his solidarity with the Quinault Nation, who are fighting against a trio of oil terminals proposed in Grays Harbor Washington. Frank wrote:

“The few jobs that the transport and export of coal and oil offer would come at the cost of catastrophic damage to our environment for years. Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix, and neither do oil and fish, oil and wildlife, or oil and just about everything else. It’s not a matter of whether spills will happen, it’s a matter of when.”

In the fall of 2014, indigenous people from British Columbia through the Puget Sound formed the Nawt-sa-maat Alliance to "co-creative joint action to block fossil fuel projects such as the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion in British Columbia, as well as oil trains, coal trains, oil tankers, ports and other pipelines." They've held rallies in Seattle, signed an international agreement to protect local coastal waters and formed a coalition with faith leaders, health advocates and environmental groups to protest coal and oil infrastructure. Its a movement that is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

Washington's east side has been no different, Native opposition has been fierce. The Yakama Tribe came out publicly and powerfully against Ambre’s proposed coal export facility in eastern Oregon, citing their mandated tribal fishing rights. Yakama protests and tenacity, in conjunction with other regional tribes like the Warm Springs and the Nez Perce, was the major factor cited by the Oregon Department of State Lands rejecting the proposals permit. (Ambre Energy, the Port of Morrow and the state of Wyoming have all filed appeals against the ODST)

Oregonian tribes have been just as unwavering in their opposition. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation also joined the Yakama in opposition to coal on the Columbia River, refusing attempts by the industry to buy tribal support.

Networks of tribes, like the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), also voiced their strong concerns about what the proposals would be mean for their communities. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission also declared its strong opposition to oil exports from the proposed site at Grays Harbor, highlighting fishing disruption in the Puget Sound, health problems in their communities, and pollution.

In fact, the 57 nations that make up the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians unanimously voted in May of 2013 to officially oppose all fossil fuel export facilities in the Northwest.

Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, may have put the tribal community’s view most clearly:

“Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape. If we cannot escape, neither will the coal.”

Its clear the Swinomish are not alone in their opposition among the Northwest’s native people. Plainly, out-of-state companies have been trying to run rough-shot over local tribes. Its time policymakers realize we are all part of the same community and we cannot ignore their voices, especially when they speak so clearly.

Nick Abraham - editor and lead contributor of Oil Check Northwest

[email protected]

Portions of this article are taken from a joint piece with the Sightline Institute


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