This story originally appeared on Cascadia Daily News.
British Petroleum's swift purchase of about 1,100 acres of land on Cherry Point for nearly $50 million this month was met by strong opposition from the Lummi Nation, which for years has battled development on the parcels due to the land's cultural significance.
BP, a multinational oil and gas company that operates a nearby refinery, finalized an agreement with Pacific International Holdings, a subsidiary of SSA Marine, on Dec. 22. It paid nearly four times more than the Whatcom County’s assessed value of $13 million for the bundle of 21 parcels.
The land was purchased to serve as an additional buffer area for refinery operations, to increase opportunities for environmental restoration and wetlands mitigation, to gain access to Gulf Road and “to provide options for possible future projects at the refinery,” said Christina Audisho, a BP media relations manager.
Audisho clarified that there are no current plans for wetland mitigation projects and no current plans for development projects on the property.
“Any future potential uses of the property will comply with all applicable laws and regulations including treaties,” Audisho said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016 rejected a proposal to build a giant coal-export terminal on the land, upholding an appeal by the Lummi Tribe on the grounds of fishing rights guaranteed by an 1855 treaty between Salish Sea tribes and the U.S. government.
The effort resulted in the landscape and seascape at Cherry Point — known in the Lummi language as Xwe’chi’eXen — being recognized as a Tribal Cultural Property by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a release by the Lummi Nation.
“For thousands of years, and continuing to this day, our people have lived here, fished here, gathered plants here, raised families here, and buried loved ones here,” said Lummi Nation Chairman Anthony Hillaire.
“We have opposed, and will continue to oppose, the development of Xwe’chi’eXen because of the unavoidable and unacceptable impacts it would have on our people and on our treaty fishing rights.”
The sunken Gateway Pacific Terminal project, a joint venture of SSA Marine and Cloud Peak Energy, was slated to export as much as 50 million metric tons of coal, which would have made it the largest coal exporter in North America.
“It's the same place, same area,” Hillaire said. “Throughout our history, we continue to have to step up and fight for this place that we all call home to protect it, to save it — not just for its beauty, and for its resources, but for its cultural significance and history.”
While recognizing that the purchase is only a land acquisition, Hillaire said that the sale and the circumstances around it raised red flags for the Lummi Nation.
Hillaire highlighted three major concerns: the limited amount of time between when Lummi Nation was notified of the sale and when it was set to close; that time line being further truncated; and the lack of reassurances from BP that it would not develop on the land.
“It happened so fast that we didn't get the reassurances that there would be no development and we don't know what the future is going to hold,” the chairman said, noting that he was not informed of the potential sale until December.
He said that in a meeting between BP and the Lummi Nation earlier this month there was mention of green energy, but it was unclear to him how this purchase fit into the company’s plan.
“We are being told that there are no plans for development at this time,” Hillaire said of the meeting. “But in the same sentence, that these refineries want to move toward clean energy.”
Hillaire said he recognized that Whatcom County, Washington State and the federal government are all looking for ways to address climate change. But he said his worry is that those attempts will be at the expense of his people and their homeland.
“Usually when there's progress, or there's new ideas, ever since the newcomers came here, it usually means that we have to give something up,” Hillaire said. “There are some things for us that are just not negotiable and development at Cherry Point is one of them.”
The Whatcom County Council passed amendments to its rules on development at the Cherry Point heavy industrial zone in 2021.
The primary goal was to limit the expansion of fossil fuel facilities and the establishment of new fossil fuels facilities, as well as to restrict any new piers and docks being built in the zone, confirmed council Member Todd Donovan, who was part of the process.
The county majority pushed for the changes by citing treaty rights of the tribes, protection of salmon fisheries and the cultural significance of the area.
However, the changes weren’t intended to prevent the development of renewable refineries or renewable fuel facilities in the zone, Donovan said.
“While it prohibited a bulk coal shipping facility, it didn't down zone the property,” Donovan said. “I feel for the tribe, because they're still facing kind of a similar situation where that [area] has tremendous cultural significance, but it is still zoned for industry.”
Hillaire said he hoped the Lummi Nation could get reassurance from BP "that our home is not going to be developed on.”
Lead image: Lummi Nation Chairman Anthony Hillaire. Photo courtesy of Lummi Nation