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Seattle's 'green' power violates salmon's legal rights, tribe says

caption: Seattle City Light's Ross Dam, one of three dams the city operates on the Skagit River where it flows through Washington's North Cascades, in 2008.
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Seattle City Light's Ross Dam, one of three dams the city operates on the Skagit River where it flows through Washington's North Cascades, in 2008.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

It’s one of the more unusual plaintiffs you’ll see in a lawsuit: Tsuladxʷ.

That’s the Lushootseed word for salmon.

Salmon can’t go to court, but the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe says the fish at the heart of its and other Northwest tribal cultures should have legal rights.

The tribe has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tsuladxʷ in Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Court to assert those rights in the tribe’s traditional territory in Washington’s North Cascades.

“These rights include, but are not limited to, the right to pure water and freshwater habitat; the right to a healthy climate system and a natural environment free from human-caused global warming impacts and emissions,” the suit states.

“Not just to declare that they have rights, but that also you and I have a duty to protect those rights,” said Jack Fiander, Sauk-Suiattle tribal counsel. “We're sort of like their trustee and they're our minors.”

The suit accuses Seattle City Light of violating the salmon’s and the tribe’s rights by operating three dams on the Skagit River with no way for fish to get past them.

Gorge, Diablo, and Ross dams provide about one-fifth of the electricity used in Seattle with essentially zero impact on the global climate.

It is the tribe’s third suit against the City of Seattle as the two governments clash over the three city-owned hydropower dams.

This suit is also the latest instance of Indigenous people and environmental advocates pushing for the rights of nature. Governments including Ecuador, Uganda, and the city of Pittsburgh have codified that ecosystems have a right to exist and flourish and that residents have the standing to enforce those rights.

“It's accepted in other countries, in South America, in international courts, that other species do have rights and that are all things are connected,” Fiander said.

A member of the Yakama Nation, Fiander said there’s a tendency in tribal cultures to keep tribal customs and traditions secret from outsiders.

“It's time for the outside world to know what tribal people's worldview is, with respect to the nature and the environment and how things are connected,” he said.

Seattle City Light and Seattle City Attorney spokespeople declined to comment on the pending litigation.

“We value our long-standing relationship with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and continue to work closely with the Sauk-Suiattle and other Tribes on many issues related to hydropower operations, including protecting and strengthening fish populations,” City Light spokesperson Jenn Strang said in an email.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to do more to address our impacts, and I am committed to making sure that City Light meets that obligation,” City Light CEO Debra Smith said in November in an open letter to the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish, and Upper Skagit tribes and others interested in the Skagit River dams.

At the same time, the city-owned utility has been fighting the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe in court. In December, Seattle City Light gained a victory when U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein threw out the tribe’s suit seeking to have the Gorge Dam declared illegal for having no way for fish to get around it, unlike many large dams in the Northwest.

Rothstein said the tribe’s lawsuit was not timely since the tribe had agreed in 1995 to let the Gorge Dam operate until its federal license expires in 2025, as long as the utility maintained healthy river flows for salmon downstream of the dam.

The tribe has appealed Rothstein’s ruling.

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has also sued Seattle City Light to stop calling itself “the nation’s greenest utility” until it gets salmon past its dams. A King County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the city’s motion to dismiss that suit on Friday.

Without some form of fish passage at those dams, Fiander said, Seattle’s claims of green leadership are just greenwashing, a kind of false advertising.

“It's not certified by any independent body,” Fiander said. “You or I could claim we’re the greenest whatever, when we're not.”

The City of Seattle, represented by international law firm K&L Gates, argues Washington’s consumer protection law doesn’t apply to city-owned businesses like Seattle City Light and that questions about the Skagit dams’ effects on salmon should be addressed when the dams come up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in three years.

The tribal government has a more immediate crisis on its hands as well: As Covid cases skyrocketed in rural Snohomish County in December, the small tribe shut down its government offices.

Tribal chair Nino Maltos Jr. could not be reached for comment.

“There's almost no cell phone reception there,” Fiander said of the Sauk-Suiattle Reservation.

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has 314 members and a reservation of about 19 acres outside the town of Darrington. Before signing a treaty in 1855 yielding most of its land to the United States government, the tribe numbered around 4,000 people, according to Sauk-Suiattle officials.

Fiander noted that the City of Seattle has retained one of the nation’s largest law firms to represent it in the dam-greenwashing case.

“I'm the Sauk-Suiattle legal department,” Fiander said. “It's one person, part time.”

Fiander has been representing the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe in court for more than a decade.

In 2014, he was made an honorary tribal member and given a Sauk-Suiattle name he says roughly translates to “protector of things that are sacred.”

“It creates a lot of pressure,” Fiander said. “I've got this big thing constantly in the back of my mind about what I have to do to fulfill that.”

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