By BEN MITCHELL
A controversial gas pipeline project on the White Salmon River was recently determined by a federal agency to meet the letter of the law despite claims of the contrary from the Yakama Nation.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month re-examined the Williams Northwest gas pipeline replacement project on the White Salmon River after Yakama Nation officials claimed the natural gas company had violated federal law by exceeding project boundaries and damaging a Yakama archaeological site near the riverbanks. The project entailed removing a section of gas pipeline from beneath the White Salmon River and placing it on girders on the east riverbank. The pipeline became exposed following the demolition of Condit Dam.
On Dec. 11, FERC officials visited the project site, which lies on a Yakama allotment as well as land owned by PacifiCorp, which granted an easement to Northwest Williams for the project. The site is located a quarter mile north of Northwestern Lake Road Bridge and ends .7 miles south of "The Castle" residence situated at the end of Fordyce Road. According to a Jan. 3 letter from FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff to Yakama Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Kate Valdez, Williams Northwest has not violated federal law.
"During the site visit, my staff determined that Northwest's activities are within the area of potential effect identified in the archaeological report and within the easement conveyed by PacifiCorp," Wellinghoff wrote. "My staff observed that construction activities are being conducted according to the stipulations in the SHPO's [State Historic Preservation Office] letter -- Northwest is operating equipment on top of timber mats placed on the surface of the identified cultural site and archaeological monitors are present and observing excavations. Further, Northwest has a plan in place to handle any unanticipated discoveries of cultural materials or human remains."
Despite FERC's findings, Yakama Nation officials still insist the project is in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.
"It appears Williams Northwest, FERC, and PacifiCorp continue to lack familiarity with conducting projects within Yakama Nation treaty land and on a Yakama Nation allotment in which Yakama Nation needs to provide an easement," wrote Emily Washines, public relations specialist for the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program, in an e-mail to The Enterprise. "It was done so in the past, however, the Yakama Nation has not given an easement for this project."
Washines would not explicitly say what or where the archaeological site was (it's identified as 45KL2088), but documents indicate it is likely an ancient fishing site that contains "lithic artifacts that could yield scientific information important to prehistory."
In addition adhering to its claims that Northwest did non procure the proper easement, did not adhere to the project description, and disturbed the archaeological site, the Yakama Nation claims it was not properly consulted for this project. Also at issue are the use of "creosote soaked railroad ties" that were placed over the archaeological site, which Yakama Nation Cultural Resources Program Manager Johnson Meninick alleged "are adversely impacting the site physically and chemically."
The point may be a moot one as Williams Northwest wrapped up the majority of its work on the project on Dec. 19. Michele Swaner, a spokesperson for Williams Northwest, said all that's left to do on the project is the tie-in to the old line. Swaner estimated the tie-in would be completed within a day and said Williams Northwest will finish the work in the spring so as not to interrupt service for those who use gas to heat their homes in the winter.
However, the Yakama Nation has far from given up and has enlisted the help of other tribes. Two weekends ago, a "flash mob" made up of dozens of people from the Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce tribes sprang up inside the Columbia Center Mall in Kennewick to protest the Williams Northwest pipeline project. Inquisitive shoppers gathered around and watched as tribal members danced, sang, and held up signs. One read, "What about trust responsibility FERC?" and another: "FERC + Williams NW = Destroy Resources."
As for what the next move for Yakama Nation officials might be, Washines did not have a specific answer, but noted that "Leadership and Project managers continue to discuss."