Tribal nations in Washington state are facing environmental challenges ranging from protecting wildlife habitats and waterways to protecting the livelihood of Washington state residents from toxic chemicals that have been released into the environment and water for decades.

Here are seven eco-disasters affecting Washington tribes as well as efforts to improve the waters on which all inhabitants depend.

Everything interrelates: The Salish Sea Campaign

Due to a consistent decline in the number of orcas that inhabit the Salish Sea, the Lummi Nation launched the Salish Sea Campaign on June 15 at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, calling for communities of the Salish Sea to stand together to protect the Southern resident orcas from extinction.


Since 1999, the population of the three orca pods — pod meaning a group of orcas — that primarily inhabit the Salish Sea, has steadily decreased from a pod 98 in 1995 to 76 as of May 31, according to online census data from the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. The center credits the population decrease to a steady decline in the Chinook salmon population, which federal, state and Indigenous leaders say is caused by habitat degradation and warmer water temperatures.

"Everything interrelates. The orca's an alarm bell,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman said in an announcement of the Salish Sea Campaign. Leonard, who is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians said, “Salmon habitat, shellfish habitat, water quality and all these things impact the food web.”

Participating in the campaign event were representatives of the Friends of the San Juans, the Orca Network, the Sierra Club, the Whale Sanctuary Project, Wild Orca, and the Lummi, Nez Perce and Suquamish nations.

All representatives called for several initiatives to include a study on the cumulative impacts of human-caused stressors to the Salish Sea; a moratorium on any new stressors until salmon populations have been restored to 1985 levels; ceremonial feedings of the qwe’ lhol mechen — the Lummi name for orca, meaning “our relations below the waves” — and the development of a multi-phased pilot project to save the Southern resident orcas.

Feeding the qwe’ lhol mechen would be in keeping with Lummi lifeways. “They are our relatives,” said Raynell Morris, Lummi elder and moderator of the event. “When somebody in our community is hungry, we feed them.”

At the gathering, a 16-foot totem pole honoring the qwe’ lhol mechen was on display. The totem pole had been taken cross country from Lummi to the Miami Seaquarium to call for the return of Tokitae, the last surviving Southern resident orca captured in the 1970s for marine parks.

“Down in Miami, we held a ceremony outside the Seaquarium and gave our relative her real name, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut,” Lummi Nation Councilman Fredrick Lane said in the announcement. “It is our Xa xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation) to bring her home.”

Seeking to restore balance between Salmon and Sea Lions

The good news: The California and Steller sea lion populations have rebounded since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, according to state Fish and Wildlife regional director Kessina Lee. But that’s meant bad news for endangered and threatened fish populations that are trying to rebuild.

A sea lion catches an endangered Chinook salmon migrating up the Columbia River just below the spillway at Bonneville Dam, Washington, on April 12, 2007. The animals have been plaguing endangered salmon species for years, but the predation problem is reaching a crisis stage.

A sea lion catches an endangered Chinook salmon migrating up the Columbia River just below the spillway at Bonneville Dam, Washington, on April 12, 2007. The animals have been plaguing endangered salmon species for years, but the predation problem is reaching a crisis stage.

Sea lions have been preying on those fish, particularly at Bonneville Dam, the first dam on the river that salmon and steelhead encounter, as they make their way upriver to spawn.

As a result, the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Treaty Tribes are seeking permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to “lethally remove” sea lions preying on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

“Where salmon and steelhead numbers are low, any unmanaged increase in predation can cause serious problems,” Lee said. “For decades, we’ve made strides in habitat restoration, hydropower policy, hatchery production and fishery management, and we continue to work with our partners to further those initiatives. Predator management remains an essential part of the equation.”

Non-lethal measures to deter sea lions in the Columbia River basin have proven largely ineffective, according to state Fish and Wildlife.

If approved, the plan would be implemented beginning in 2020. Sea lions would be trapped and held for permanent placement at accredited zoos or aquaria, according to the applications. Sea lions not placed would be euthanized by a veterinarian and the carcass made available to Native Nations for ceremonial use.

Sea lions were historically harvested by Northwest Native peoples, according to a McGill University study, “Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America.”

“For the Coast Salish, Tlingit and Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), the Steller sea lion hunt brought prestige to successful hunters,” the report states. “Kwakwaka'wakw, Tlingit and Coast Salish consumed sea lion meat. The Tlingit and Haida used sea lion oil. The Chinookans of Lower Columbia consumed its meat, blubber, and oil. The [Tsimshian] of Port Simpson used sea lion heart, liver and meat.

“The Tlingit and the Coast Salish served sea lion during feasts … The Coast Salish shared sea lion between all members of the community, while the Chemainus shared it amongst the hunters who contributed to the killing, depending on the order in which they harpooned it,” said the study.

Parts of the sea lion had utilitarian uses: the intestines, strings for bows; the stomach, for storage of liquids; the bladder, for floats on harpoons.

The applicants include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community, and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians of Oregon.

Hanford Reach: The Hanford Journey

The day prior to the Salish Sea Campaign event, more than 150 people gathered along the Columbia River’s scenic Hanford Reach for The Hanford Journey, a day-long event to celebrate the life of the late Dr. Russell Jim and demand a thorough cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Site managed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hanford Reach

Hanford Reach section of the Columbia River.

Jim was a Yakama Nation leader who devoted his life to advocating for cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Site, home to 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored in underground tanks. The waste is the result of more than four decades of Cold War-era plutonium production.

The Hanford Journey was hosted by the Yakama Nation Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program and a non-profit organization that works to protect the river, Columbia Riverkeeper. Participants viewed shuttered nuclear reactors on boat tours and learned about cultural resources during guided hikes along the White Bluffs. The Columbia’s Hanford Reach spans 50 miles of undammed, free-flowing river and is home to 43 species of fish, including the threatened Upper Columbia River spring-run chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. The Reach provides critical habitat for spawning, foraging, and migration of salmon and steelhead.

Polly Zehm, deputy director of the state Department of Ecology, said the late Dr. Jim taught her to stop thinking about the river as something separate from people.

"Think of ourselves as a part of the river, think of the river as a part of ourselves because restoring the health to the river, cleaning it up and bringing it back to health was really what brings health to the people, all people associated with the river and this great incredible basin that it supports,” she said.

Alfrieda Peters, a Yakama Nation environmental education and outreach specialist, said the Yakama Nation envisions Hanford — which is within the traditional homeland of the Yakama people — as a place where the people can once again “fully enjoy our ancestral homelands, practice our traditional way of life and gather our cultural foods safe from any worries of radioactivity.”

At 586 square miles, Hanford is the site of one of the largest nuclear cleanup efforts in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy operates an onsite Office of River Protection, responsible for the retrieval, treatment and disposal of Hanford’s nuclear waste in a safe, effi­cient manner.

But the Department of Energy proposes reclassifying high-level radioactive waste as low-level radioactive waste at one of its tank storage areas; the lower-level reclassification would allow the department to abandon the tanks.

Yakama and Columbia Riverkeeper want the waste removed, citing liquid waste that has leaked from at least 67 underground tanks and migrated to the aquifer and river.

Teck Metals’ decades of toxic waste into the Upper Columbia River

For over 65 years, the industrial company Teck Metals has been intentionally discharging millions of tons of slag into the Upper Columbia River affecting the Colville Tribes. In December 2018, people living downriver from Trail, British Columbia in Canada filed a class action lawsuit against Teck Metals, claiming high rates of disease which they have attributed to pollution from the smelter. According to extensive reporting by CBC News in Canada, Teck Metals has a history of dumping and spills at its smelter (an installation or factory for smelting a metal from its ore) in Trail, British Columbia.

Slag from Teck Metals, Ltd. smelter can be found floating along the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt. This picture was taken at a city beach in Northport, Washington. (Photo: Colville Tribe/Flickr)

Slag from Teck Metals, Ltd. smelter can be found floating along the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt. This picture was taken at a city beach in Northport, Washington. (Photo: Colville Tribe/Flickr)

The December 2018 lawsuit is not the first time Teck Metals has been under legal scrutiny.

Teck Metals was sued in 2004 by the Colville Tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for intentionally discharging nearly 10 million tons of slag – a byproduct of metal smelting -- into the river from 1930 to 1995.

In May 2008, Teck reported that they accidentally dumped 310 U.S. gallons of lead solution into the Columbia River. The company was fined $115,000 “for what the judge called significant negligence,” according to a news report by the CBC.

In 2012, a Washington state judge ruled Teck Metals liable, adding that materials in the slag – including arsenic, barium, lead, cadmium, copper and zinc – posed a threat to the environment and human health.

Even after Teck Metals was found liable in 2012, on Jan. 28, 2014, Teck Metals reported that they accidentally discharged up to 6,600 U.S. gallons of sodium hydroxide solution into a sewer line leading to a wastewater treatment plant that discharged into the Columbia River.

In September of 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Teck Metals was liable for discharging several million tons of toxic wastes into the river. Teck Metals appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court declined on June 11 to hear the company’s appeal of a decision awarding more than $8 million in costs to the Colville Tribes for cleanup of the company’s toxic waste into the upper Columbia River.

“This is great news for the Tribes and Washington State,” state Department of Ecology toxic cleanups manager Jim Pendowski said in an announcement of the high court’s action. “It’s time that the company is held accountable. This decision will ensure that will happen.”

“The tribes was determined to protect our river, to do everything we could to right this wrong,” Colville Tribes Chairman Rodney Cawston said. “I want to recognize and honor the determination and commitment of Colville Business Council members in the past, who began this difficult journey in the 1990s. Their courage and support of this cause has brought us where we are today… We appreciate the work of the state of Washington, which has stood with us in this cause. We hope that now Teck will step up and do the right thing— to clean up its releases of hazardous substances in the Upper Columbia.”

The Lower Duwamish River: Owners agree to cleanup

The Lower Duwamish River was modified beginning in the mid-1800s to accommodate industries that used the river to ship their products near and far via Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

But those companies were not always careful about what went into the water, and a five-mile stretch of the lower river is now a Superfund clean-up site. Two of those property owners have agreed to cleanup plans.

The industry-lined Duwamish River has been polluted for a hundred years or more and its bottom five miles ruled a Superfund site. That section will now get a $342 million cleanup.

The industry-lined Duwamish River has been polluted for a hundred years or more and its bottom five miles ruled a Superfund site.

One owner of a 1.3-acre industrial property on the lower Duwamish has agreed to clean a portion of the site and test all of it for soil and groundwater contamination, a step toward planning a future final cleanup.

Various businesses have occupied the property since 1935: shipbuilding and repair company disposed of sandblast grit, using the material as fill on part of the property, and a towing company operated underground storage tanks there for 30 years, according to the state Department of Ecology. Soil samples show concentrations of metals, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs), and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, according to Ecology. Groundwater samples contain metals, and river sediments near the site contain metals, PAHs and PCBs.

Three-and-a-half miles upriver, the aircraft manufacturer Boeing Company has agreed to continue cleanup work and expand studies of contaminated areas on its 164-acre property. Studies show that soil and groundwater there “now or did contain toxic substances, including petroleum products, solvents that can release vapors, metals and polychlorinated biphenyls,” according to the Department of Ecology.

Boeing began cleaning the site in the late 1980s and has removed 1,400 tons of contaminated soil and pumped groundwater through a treatment system.

Congress voices concern about proposed Upper Skagit River copper mine

Nine members of Congress from Washington state have written U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, voicing opposition to a proposed mine in the headwaters of the Upper Skagit River in British Columbia. They say mining could harm downriver wildlife and habitats and would “undercut the spirit” of a 1984 treaty between the United States and Canada relating to the Skagit River and Ross Lake.

Those signing were Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and U.S. Representatives Suzan DelBene (WA-1), Denny Heck (WA-10), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Derek Kilmer (WA-6), Rick Larsen (WA-2), Kim Schrier (WA-8), and Adam Smith (WA-9).

A British Columbia mining company, Imperial Metals, has submitted a proposal to conduct exploratory copper and gold mining operations on unprotected land in the Upper Skagit River Watershed. The members of Congress say copper is highly toxic to salmon and are concerned that heavy metals from mining could pollute the river, harming fisheries as far downstream as Puget Sound and threatening recreation on the Skagit.

Tahltan elders and families go to court to save Tl’abãne from Red Chris Mine, owned by Imperial Metals Corp., which owns Polley Mine, whose dam breach sent billions of gallons of toxic waste into pristine British Columbia waterways.

Tahltan elders and families go to court to save Tl’abãne from Red Chris Mine, owned by Imperial Metals Corp., which owns Polley Mine, whose dam breach sent billions of gallons of toxic waste into pristine British Columbia waterways.

The Skagit River flows from its headwaters in British Columbia through the North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker/Snoqualmie Forest to Puget Sound in Washington state.

“This proposed mine in the Skagit River headwaters could negatively impact Washington state’s tourism and recreation economy, the public health of citizens, and our state’s cultural and natural resources, including economically and ecologically valuable fish populations that are dependent upon the health of the transboundary watershed,” the members of Congress wrote.

“This watershed provides over 30 percent of the freshwater flowing into Puget Sound and supports a diverse fish and wildlife population that are of local, regional, and national importance, including the largest population of threatened steelhead and Chinook salmon in Puget Sound and the largest run of chum salmon in the contiguous United States.”

In August 2014, a tailings pond dam breached at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley open pit copper and gold mine in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, releasing at least 2.6 billion U.S. gallons of water and 1.2 billion U.S. gallons of slurry into Quesnel Lake, believed to be the deepest fjord lake in the world. The breach led to a temporary drinking-water ban in most areas of the lake.

While tests later declared the water safe to drink, the company advised residents “they should not be drinking cloudy water” and should use point-of-use filters to “remove the suspended sediment.”

On Jan. 7, 2019, Imperial Metals reported it would suspend operations at the Mount Polley mine effective the end of May.

For the love of salmon: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee pledges nearly $275 million for culvert replacement

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently used his budget transfer authority to direct the state Department of Transportation to allocate $275 million toward replacement of culverts that block fish migration.

The legislature had appropriated $100 million to the effort.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee at the State of the State address in January.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee at the State of the State address in January.

Tribal leaders applauded Inslee’s decision. Suquamish Chairman Forsman called Inslee’s action “a reflection of his commitment to ensure the state’s oldest industry” — salmon and salmon fisheries – “sustainable for generations to come.”

Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe Chairman Ron Allen said Inslee’s action will help ensure the survival of salmon while Swinomish Tribe Chairman Brian Cladoosby said Inslee is “investing in protecting our precious natural resources and showing that Washington State can live up to its obligations.”

According to the Washington Department of Transportation, the state has identified 1,521 culverts which “block a significant amount of upstream habitat.” Culverts are generally large pipes beneath roadways; while they allow water to flow, they can hinder or block adult salmon that are migrating to spawning areas.

Tribal and state fisheries managers say fish-blocking culverts are contributing to the decline of salmon populations and violate Native and non-Native treaty rights to harvest salmon. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez in 2013 ordered Washington state to fix or replace most fish-blocking culverts by 2030. His decision was upheld last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As of June 30, 2018, Transportation replaced 330 fish-blocking culverts, “allowing access to approximately 1,042 miles of potential upstream habitat for fish.”

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Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.