Death to the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea,
Joy to PSE

Washington State is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Nestled in the greenery of old cedars and the world’s only temperate rainforest, lies the city of Tacoma. Tacoma is touted as great for retirees and has amazing views of the water and of majestic Mount Ranier. But digging into Tacoma’s history reveals a more complex story – one of injustices to Indigenous people and of modern corporate abuse.

About one hour south of Seattle, or two hours with traffic (a problem adding one more lane would surely solve), Tacoma is also known for its pungent smell. In fact, the scent of the city has been dubbed “the aroma of Tacoma.” The odor can be credited to a paper mill, rendering plant, and oil refinery.

The Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854 (ratified by the Senate in 1855), granted 2.24 million acres of Puyallup land to the United States. In turn, the Pacific Northwest Tribe received reservations, cash payments, and traditional hunting and fishing rights. The current Puyallup Tribe reservation is approximately 30 square miles, which encompasses a major port, industry, and urban housing. Traditional fishing rights were clarified in the three cases of Puyallup Tribe vs. The Department of Game of Washington which retained the Tribe’s practices of hunting and fishing with the quantity subject to state regulations.

But not far away is Puget Sound Energy’s (PSE) Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Plant — a storage and processing facility for fracked natural gas situated on Commencement Bay in Tacoma. The primary purpose of the LNG Plant and pipeline is to provide heating to the greater Seattle area. Its environmental dangers include various forms of air and water pollution. Natural gas is made up primarily of methane, which when burned as fuel, is released into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas. Meanwhile, pipeline leaks increase the water temperature of Medicine Creek, an essential estuary for salmon. Salmon eggs cannot hatch under these temperatures, and that is contributing to the decline in salmon populations.

Fish in Commencement Bay are being directly affected by the hazardous chemicals driving from the LNG Plant; these conditions directly target the Puyallup Tribe. As stated in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the impacts to the waters, shorelines, habitat, and surrounding shoreline properties and uses go to the heart of the Tribe’s culture and livelihood with potential impacts to fish, other wildlife, and natural resources, as well as impacts to the health and welfare Tribal members.”

Traditional fishing and fish are promised to the Puyallup Tribe by the Treaty of Medicine Creek and reassured by cases like Puyallup Tribe vs. The Department of Game of Washington. Yet these fish are at risk due to pollution from PSE’s LNG Plant and pipelines, and, therefore, so are the treaty rights of the Puyallup. As is secured in Article VI, cl.2 of the United States Constitution, the Medicine Creek Treaty shall be the “supreme Law of the Land.” A violation of the Treaty of Medicine Creek is a violation of constitutional law.

Despite these clearly stated rights, the Washington Pollution Control Hearing Board reviewed and ruled PSE’s air permits (issued by Puget Sound Clean Air Agency) adequate. According to multiple environmental agencies, the simulations, analysis, and science reviewed for permitting were outdated, and even considered “fictional” by the Washington Attorney General, Bob Ferguson. Nevertheless, PSE started construction of the facility before obtaining the proper permits. This influenced subsequent board decisions regarding permit appeals: halting the facility’s use would be a business liability because of its premature investments. For these reasons, the Puyallup Tribe and several environmental and community organizations have filed an appeal with Pierce County Superior Court, challenging the decision by the Washington Pollution Control Hearing Board.

The Puyallup Tribe has been fighting a unified battle with environmental activists for nearly a decade even though impeded at every step.

The Tribe has been completely disregarded in the permitting and development process and ignored in the consultation obligations required by the U.S. Army Corp’s Consultation Policy. In fact, the policy states that commanders and Corps officials, among truthful and meaningful consultation, will interact with federally recognized Tribes and “identify and remove procedural impediments to workings with Tribes whenever possible.” According to the Puyallup Tribe, the Army Corps has intentionally held back permitting documentation from review. In September 2015, a routine public notification informed the Puyallup Tribe of PSE’s permitting advancements. The Tribe immediately requested documents in the permitting file to review prior to a meeting with the Corps. Instead, the Tribe was told they would receive a shared file to copy during the in-person meeting. Yet during the meeting the Army Corps failed to provide the requested files. They instead informed the Tribe that they had to complete a Freedom of Information Act request in order to review the details of permit analysis (which included PSE coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency, due to significant amounts of pollution surrounding the project). Finally, the Tribe received only ten pages of the more than one hundred pages of documents requested. This struggle necessitated by the Army Corps simply to access permitting files is not the mindset needed to address these deep intercultural issues and climate change.

The fight for justice in Tacoma, Washington epitomizes the message of the Rachel Carson Council (RCC). Rachel Carson spoke to the interconnectedness of the environment, human health, and social justice in her book Silent Spring. At the RCC we uphold that message in respect to the PSE’s LNG Pipeline and stand with the heroes fighting to protect the Earth and the livelihoods and safety of its inhabitants. The movement against fossil fuels and corporate greed is a movement of love: for the birds soaring through the air we breathe, for the fish swimming in the water we drink, for the worms digging in the soil beneath our feet, and for our neighbors who have had their rights and lives devalued. This is a movement for those who have been sacrificed for the bottom line. PSE’s LNG Plant and pipeline is dangerous, against public interest, and must be stopped.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Meghan Tinnea

Meghan Tinnea is a sophomore at Georgetown University with majors in Science,
Technology, and International Affairs with a concentration in Energy and Environment and double minors in International Development and Environmental Studies. After graduating, she sees herself contributing to the fight against climate change as an environmental consultant for corporate and legislative decisions, guided by a lens of intersectionality and equity. Meghan’s history in environmental activism traces back to her freshman year of high school, where she became involved in climate policy and education. At Georgetown, she became President of Georgetown’s Climate Justice Club, and founded a local chapter of Sunrise Movement.