Written by Katy Gale for CNN
Native communities across the Pacific Northwest are banding together to prevent the destruction of what’s known as the two-mule-walks stretch of the Salish Sea, a trail of fishable waters that separates Washington and British Columbia.
This section of the North American Pacific Ocean has become particularly sensitive to various commercial and recreational fishing interests, as well as developers.
In 2010, an industrial phosphate mine, named Tulsequah Chief Mine in the First Nations Territories of the Grand Ronde, poured through the riverbed and inundated land. Its owner, Texas-based Duluth Metals, plans to operate the mine for 50 years and supply it with 270,000 tons of phosphate — a fertilizer ingredient needed to produce many consumer goods, including candy, cereal and poultry meat.
The project is planned to transport fertilizers from sites in a neighboring province to its mines in the Salish Sea. As a result, fishermen from both B.C. and Washington have noted that the loss of habitat could mean the demise of the entire salmon fishery that runs through the Salish Sea.
The Grand Ronde, on B.C.’s northwest coast, is home to the Tulsequah Chief Mine. The river is swarming with tiny hydropower turbines at its confluence with the Dawson Creek River — designed to provide electricity to oil-shipping vessels during the refinery process.
The cumulative effects of this massive tangle of dams, mines and energy plants have driven salmon along a steep decline. There are currently two recognized runs of sockeye salmon, the coastal run and the Fraser River run. The coastal run originates in the Fraser River and continues along the Salish Sea before reaching the waters of Alaska. Salmon are primarily consumed as part of indigenous cultures throughout British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Duluth Metals is also hoping to reverse the decline of this industry and build on last year’s record Chinook salmon catch off B.C.’s coast. It also hopes to benefit from improved access to fresh water.
The company’s design, two upstream dams to be built out of precast concrete, would divert up to 18.8 million cubic meters of water from a Lower Salish Sea source, and channel it to millions of square meters of underground aquifers, according to a report published in December by the non-profit Pacific Institute.
Duluth Metals is currently seeking to commence construction by early summer 2019, if it receives approvals from the National Energy Board and the Canadian government.
The project would span 20.1 square kilometers, more than half of it in Washington state. When complete, nearly 3,500 megawatts of power would be generated from underground aquifers, at a price that the company predicts to be below the rate of energy used by today’s average Canadian residential electric utility. A spokesperson said the project would add $24 to a typical family’s power bill, but anticipates the power would be cheaper than petroleum imports.
The plan is now before the Salish Sea Coalition, a group of individuals, indigenous groups and regional groups concerned with salmon and other wildlife. The coalition is committed to protecting salmon and their habitat.
The coalition’s plan includes trying to stop the project in court, and potentially working with a local municipality — the District of Whitehorse — that is home to a coal project. If these hopes fail, there are plans to confront Duluth Metals in private negotiations with board members and investors, attempting to change the company’s vision for the site.
If this effort fails, coalition members also advocate for political action at the provincial and federal levels, arguing that the decision to authorize a proposed mine needs to be politically and culturally sensitive.
A proposed Husky Energy terminal on the west coast, however, is another issue altogether. Recent regulations for coastal shipping designed to improve safety and congestion have already made it easier for more companies to join the exploding trade in crude oil by rail.
Since rail shipments of crude oil have skyrocketed over the past decade, more than 600 oil train incidents have happened within 1,000 miles of the Pacific Coast, according to the National Transportation Safety Board . The most recent was a crash in Mount Polley, B.C., which was the site of a rupture of an oil pipeline in 2014 that leaked the equivalent of 75 Olympic-sized swimming pools of toxic crude oil into local waterways.