In dispute over coal mine project, two ways of life hang in the balance

Courntey Little Nest gives her sister, Kadrean Iron, a ride on her horse. The Crow live on a 2.2 million-acre reservation in Montana, and have signed an agreement to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal on their land.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Neither tribe created the modern energy economy. They did not build the railroads or the power plants or the giant freighters that cross the ocean.

But the Crow Tribe, on a vast and remote reservation here in the grasslands of the northern Plains, and the Lummi Nation, nearly a thousand miles to the west on a sliver of shoreline along the Salish Sea in Washington state, have both become unlikely pieces of the machinery that serves the global demand for electricity — and that connection has put them in bitter conflict.

The Crow, whose 2.2 million-acre reservation is one of the largest in the country, have signed an agreement to mine 1.4 billion tons of coal on their land — enough to provide more than a year’s worth of the nation’s coal consumption.


The Lummi, on a 13,000-acre peninsula north of Seattle, are leading dozens of other tribes in a campaign that could block the project. They say it threatens not only the earth’s future climate, but also native lands, sacred sites and a fragile fishery the Lummi and others have depended on for thousands of years.

For the Crow, the project is a matter of survival. Traffic at the Crow’s remote and modest casino provides no meaningful revenue, there are no reservation hotels and unemployment here is well into the double digits. Tribal leaders say the new mine could provide up to $5,000 annually in dividend payments for each of the more than 13,000 members of the tribe and high-paying jobs for decades to come.

But to get Crow coal to its most promising market in Asia, the tribe wants to transport it by rail across the Pacific Northwest to a deep-water port just north of the Lummi reservation. The trains, potentially several a day, would unload their cargo at a proposed new shipping hub, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, near the town of Bellingham. The Lummi say that the terminal location is home to historic burial grounds and fragile fish habitat — that they too are fighting for their way of life.

“Everyone says it’s Lummi against Crow,” said Johnny Felix, a member of the Lummi tribal council and a commercial fisherman, as he watched his son and others practice for wooden canoe races against other coastal tribes this summer. “It’s not. It’s not a tribe against a tribe. It’s a resource against a resource. That’s our resource — out there in the water. And their resource is coal.”

The Lummi hold a potential trump card in the fight: The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by several Salish Sea tribes with the United States, ensures them access to their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas.

Earlier this year, the Lummi invoked those treaty rights in a legal challenge to stop the Gateway project that is now being reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, which approves construction in many waterways and harbors, had already been examining the Gateway project for its potential effects on historical sites and endangered species and had expected to make a decision in the second half of 2016. The Lummi’s treaty rights claim has added a new, heightened level of scrutiny that could force a decision sooner.


The move infuriated Crow leaders. The tribe’s chairman, Darrin Old Coyote, accuses the Lummi and its allies of being influenced by environmental groups from liberal, urban Seattle. He bristles that, even though he has visited the Lummi several times, once fishing with Felix, the Lummi have refused his invitations to come to Montana.

“They’re ignorant,” Old Coyote said. “They’re ignorant to the point where they don’t want to understand where we’re coming from. These [environmental groups] are going out there saying all these horrible things are going to happen and at the same time those people … are going home and plugging in their cars and their iPads and their iPhones and still depending on electricity.”

Tribes are hardly the only source of resistance. The Crow are pursuing the project amid strong momentum against coal. Although Asia remains a strong market, questions are rising about its long-term appetite for coal as pressure increases worldwide to reduce its use. The Obama administration, through its Clean Power Plan, is moving to put strict new limits on power plants that burn coal, citing their emission of hazardous pollutants and climate-changing greenhouse gases. A tax credit that made coal mining more economical on tribal land expired in December.

Old Coyote has traveled several times to Washington, D.C., to make his case. He asked the Corps to arrange a meeting between the Crow and the Lummi — a mediating role the Corps says is not its responsibility. The Corps in turn asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to consider arranging a meeting; the bureau says the other tribes have no interest.

The proposed new mine would not be the first coal mine to benefit the Crow. For decades, the tribe has received the bulk of its revenue from the Absaloka coal mine, an important supplier of fuel to power plants in the Midwest.

Although Absaloka is just outside Crow land, the tribe controls mining rights to it and revenue from the privately operated mine provides more than two-thirds of the Crow budget. Three times a year, each member of the tribe receives a dividend that ranges from less than $200 to more than $500.


Absaloka’s output has been declining in part because it produces a lower-grade, higher-polluting coal. That has made it vulnerable to stricter regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn makes it less profitable. The Obama administration’s proposed new emissions regulations are expected to make Absaloka coal even harder to sell.

The new Crow mine, called the Big Metal Mine, to be operated by Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy, could produce three times more than the Absaloka mine and its coal, drawn from the Powder River Basin, is expected to be a higher-value grade. Most of it would be burned in Asia, where it would not fall under EPA regulations.

Old Coyote has some support in Washington. Montana Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Jon Tester, a Democrat, have proposed reauthorizing the special Indian mining tax credit. And in April, Daines hosted a field hearing at Little Bighorn College in Crow territory on the importance of coal to the Crow and Montana economies.

The speakers at the hearing, pre-selected, spoke in favor of mining. But they also suggested the high-level political divisions that exist: Other than Old Coyote, the only other elected leader of a tribe who spoke clearly in favor of mining was Lorenzo Bates, the council speaker for the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The Navajo, the country’s largest tribe with more than 300,000 members, have long depended on coal mining but production there has also declined.

“When we go to D.C., coal’s a bad four-letter word,” Old Coyote said in an interview. “But if there’s a blackout in the U.S. every so often because they say we want to rely on renewable energy, they’re going to be saying bad four-letter words to try to get that power back on.”

He pointed to work the tribe has done restoring land mined at Absaloka and says it would do the same at the new mine.


“We’re doing reclamation to the point of perfection,” he said. “We’re the ones who are going to live here, to stay here.”

The Lummi say the same. The Gateway terminal in Washington state would be built near two existing terminals that serve oil refineries. The Lummi, who have been gaining economic strength in recent years thanks to increasing revenue from an expanding casino and hotel, did not put up similar resistance when the other terminals were built several decades ago.

“That’s what I’ve never understood,” Felix said. “Why did our leaders in the past let that happen? But now is a different time and I’m saying no — no to everything.”

Twitter: @yardleyLAT

This story was prepared with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.