lili Martinez and David Duenas

Tribal governments have historically been at odds with neighboring non-Native local governments, over issues of jurisdiction, taxation, land rights, water rights, and other areas of contention. But today, tribes and their neighbors should be able to protect themselves from corporations, who are looking to make money from natural resources without providing proper measures for safety and cleanup. Recently, Pacific Northwest governments have teamed up to protect both tribal sovereignty and the well-being of both Native and non-Native communities.

The Safe Energy Leadership Alliance (SELA) is an organization comprised of local and tribal government leaders from Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho and also Canada. The chair of SELA is King County Executive Dow Constantine. His environmental policy advisor Megan Smith agreed to be interviewed by lili Martinez at Seattle City Hall, to discuss SELA and how it brings together tribal and local officials to fight oil and coal trains, and plan for a clean energy future. The discussion focused on SELA's priorities to unify government officials who share concern over impacts of fossil fuel projects and transportation on local communities.

Reaction Time

The first question to Smith was “On the SELA website there is mention of the delay that emergency responders may face with these oil and coal trains. To your knowledge, have there been any incidents of this reported in any county involved with SELA, and if so, what degree of impact has this had in emergency situations?” She replied that she is “not aware of specific circumstances in which an emergency vehicle is trying to get somewhere and got delayed. What that observation is coming from is analysis that have been done of... gate down time”. Gate down time (also called grade-downtime) is when highway-rail grade crossing becomes blocked due to the passing of a train. Coal and oil trains can be “a mile to a mile and a half” long. Megan says the grade-downtime assessments that King County has done “look at access...  where is there an emergency service provider... nearby, and where do you have the potential for that access to be blocked...  and how much does a proposal like the coal export from Cherry Point... affect that gate down time.”

The next question was “What [kinds of] potential problems [are seen for].... local governments and business from the increased rail traffic?” Smith answered, “Through the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, we've been looking at public health and safety impacts, so we're looking at worst case, if it's an oil train:... derailment, a spill, a fire, or an explosion. So, first that really critical, like, it's risk to life” In answering this question, she also referred a “set of guiding principles for SELA that talks about: We want full assessment and disclosure of public safety, health, traffic, economic, and treaty resource impacts, like when they look at these proposals.”


To the next question, “[What are] some ways in which tribal and / or local governments are... most prepared for such a disaster as an oil spill”, Smith disclosed:

“We're not, not as prepared. When I say ‘we’, local and tribal governments... if there were a major oil spill... [or] fire, what we hear from especially a lot of smaller, local governments, they don't have the materials, specialized materials, to fight the fire... And I think a lot of the concern for local governments and tribes, is that the burden will fall on them to train their staff, have equipment stockpiled... and they're not really setup to do that.” 
A diagram of the current and projected future of fossil fuel import/export in the Pacific Northwest following the business as usual model (Credit:  Sightline Institute)

A diagram of the current and projected future of fossil fuel import/export in the Pacific Northwest following the business as usual model (Credit: Sightline Institute)

The lack of resources and preparedness to handle a spill or fire is concerning, especially in consideration of the lack of authority that local and tribal governments have to say 'no' to these projects. Megan states that this is a major concern of SELA and cites it as a primary reason for many leaders joining:

“I think for a lot of local governments and tribes, why they want to join SELA, we see this issue where we know there is the prospect of more coal trains. We know we are already seeing a lot more oil trains and there is more to come... We get all the impact and all the risk, but we have almost no authority over it... It's interstate commerce it's regulated by the federal government. The state has... a spill response program; they have some authority to inspect rail lines and crossings, but as local governments and tribes, we just don't have a lot of authority... And so, we really wanted to come together... so that when we do weigh in, we can say, ‘hey, this isn't just King County, or the City of Seattle, or this small community on the Columbia River, or the Lummi tribe, it's all of us.’”


Smith continued:  

“We really have a concern for people who live in close proximity to the rail lines... and this has been one of our arguments. I think when the coal terminals were first proposed, the inclination of the federal government, was to say, ‘Well, we're just going to look at the impacts of building the terminal.’ And we said, ‘Well, you can't separate that from the train, the impacts of the train that are going to serve it.’ So, we're very concerned that, along rail lines, you very often have disproportionate numbers of people who are low income, communities of color, people who... have the least resources to move, if they wanted to move away, or may have preexisting health conditions like asthma.... So, we're really concerned about that--that impacts of these trains, they'll impact full communities, but also they will have disproportionate impacts on low income communities and people.” 
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      A totem pole created by Lummi tribal member Jewell James in opposition of coal exports.

A totem pole created by Lummi tribal member Jewell James in opposition of coal exports.

“We're also really concerned about impacts to tribes and treaty rights, because when you look at where these terminals are proposed, you know they're, on water bodies... and they're in places where tribes have treaty harvest rights for fish and shellfish... The Lummi Tribe is really concerned about the impacts of barge traffic coming in and out in their accustomed fishing waters like for fish and crab. They're concerned about... damage to habitat in those areas, and they're making the case that you can't mitigate that impact and that it's going to affect their treaty rights. So, we're really concerned about that as well and that's one of the guiding principles of SELA when we weigh in, is that we have an interest in making sure that treaty rights are protected.”

When Smith was asked, “Are First Nations on their own, or do they have support from local and county governments they reside in, regarding the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel industry that threaten them?” She replied, "I would say, they’re definitely not on their own, and have support from SELA... SELA [has]... sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers... to say, ‘We want you to respect their [Lummi's] treaty rights.’ So, I do think they have support there.” 


SELA is mostly doing letter writing, speaking in legislative hearings and proposing bills. SELA has great potential as a networking tool for tribes and local governments to collaborate on projects such as spill response plans. SELA could also expand its scope beyond being on the defensive against coal and oil shipping, and start looking at ways that local and tribal government can work together towards renewable safe energy production at the local level. The scope of SELA could be even broader yet, to include food, is the energy source which humans must consume to stay alive and help make food safer and easily accessible for everyone. Food sovereignty has been part of tribal way of life for thousands of years.

“Why have tribal, and... local or county governments been at odds historically and how have they developed a relationship around the coal and oil train issue?” She replied, “We work a lot with tribes that have usual and accustomed fishing rights in our area that are affected by actions in King County, and we work a lot at the Puget Sound scale, and Puget Sound recovery. What I hear from a lot of tribes when they speak in the forums is that, they feel like local governments have not had enough respect for the impacts that development in their cities and counties have on habitat that affects treaty rights for fishing. And that, they feel like all other levels of government, local, state, federal, have not been able to invest enough money in habitat protection and recovery. So... I think there has been, you know, definitely acrimony about that. I think on this Safe Energy Leadership Alliance issue, it's an example of where local governments and some, who typically have maybe not worked with tribes very much, are finding they actually have a lot of common interest with the tribes, and you know, that... it's valuable to work together on these issues.”

When Smith was asked to expand on how the relationship between tribal and local governments, her answer went into a different direction. She says: 

“We have communities that face common issues and threats from oil transport, and from coal transport and export. I think at the same time, that we have different roles that we can play... we have state legislators that are a part of our group. You know, they can work on legislation at the state level to try to do everything the state can about spill response and notification of local governments and what's coming through their community and insurance requirements. For the tribes, they actually have some really strong authority given, and influence, because they have treaty rights, and I think they're doing a really good job of making the case, of like, this is gonna affect their treaty rights. So, they have a role to play there.”

We hope that the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance will continue to grow and strengthen as a united force against fossil fuel and take steps towards renewable energy production at the local level.


Audubon, WA. (n.d.) An increasing threat through our communities and along our waterways. Audubon Washington. 

Smith, Megan. (2015).  Environmental project manager for SELA. Personal Interview. 

Wozniacka, G. (2015, August 22). Lummi Nation totem pole journey to oppose coal exports. KOMO News.