Tribal leader who led cleanup of bay dies at 50

Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe chairman Jeromy Sullivan died after a brief illness June 30 surrounded by family.

Sullivan, 50, had been hospitalized the previous few weeks and was undergoing treatment, a PGST Facebook post says.

Sullivan was elected to the tribal council in 2005 and became chairman in 2009. He presided over tremendous environmental, cultural and economic milestones for his tribe, a news release states, adding he felt deep connections to the water and the forest and was passionate about protecting the environment and tribal treaty rights.

“Words are hollow right now. We wish we could make the hurt go away, but Jeromy was one of ours. We watched him grow up with that winning personality. He will not be forgotten,” said Ron Charles, former PGST chairman.

Sullivan worked with his tribe’s natural resources team to help educate state, local and environmental leaders about the need to clean up Port Gamble Bay, an important ancestral waterway adjacent to the tribe’s reservation. The bay had been subject to close to 150 years of pollution from a sawmill that operated in Port Gamble.

A lifelong diver and shellfish harvester, Sullivan saw first-hand the impacts caused by the decades of wood waste and chemicals left behind by mill operations. He was determined to restore and protect the bay for future generations. Through his advocacy, he persuaded those who previously knew little about the tribe’s history in the area to care about protecting the bay, the release states.

He was a founder of the Kitsap Forest & Bay project, which sought to conserve almost 7,000 acres around Port Gamble, including shoreline along the bay. In 2014, a cleanup was negotiated between the mill’s former operators, Pope Resources, and various state agencies. In-water work began the next year with cleanup completed in 2017. The cleanup included the removal of over 8,500 mainly creosote pilings, the largest such operation in state history.

In recognition of his work, Sullivan was awarded the Billy Frank Jr. Natural Resources Protection Award.

In 2019, Sullivan was part of a team that struck a historic deal with Pope Resources that included the purchase of 937 acres adjacent to the reservation and the exclusive rights to harvest shellfish from company-owned tidelands.

In 2021, development rights for the original mill site, once the home of the tribe’s ancestral village, were purchased by the PGST—a deal that was unthinkable during years of tense relations between the tribe and Pope Resources. Sullivan’s optimism and ability to appreciate how jobs at the mill kept generations of S’Klallams together—his own father worked there for 33 years—helped push the negotiations along, per the release.

When Sullivan came into office, the PGST’s land holdings totaled 1,340 acres. Today, it is over 2,700 acres. The tribe also saw significant expansion to programs that support the health and welfare of the community. Those include becoming the first tribe in the nation to run its own foster care and adoption program, the creation of a human dignity approach to reentry that has become a model to other tribes and municipalities, and the 2021 opening of a state-of-the-art Health Center.

During COVID, Sullivan provided steady leadership. Understanding early on that people felt isolated during lockdowns, he delivered the latest health guidance from his home via video on Facebook. Many tribal members looked forward to his broadcasts as a trustworthy source of information during an uncertain time. He encouraged neighbors and family members to check in on and support each other however they could.

Before being elected to tribal council, Sullivan was employed by his tribe, first in the bingo hall and later in IT. He was proud of the jobs the tribe was able to create for tribal members and those in the community at large. During his time as chairman, he was able to help increase these opportunities through expansion of the tribe’s economic holdings, including opening a hotel connected to The Point Casino.

An avid sports fan, he was a big fan of the Seahawks and the Mariners and loved playing baseball.

Sullivan is survived by his wife, Toni, and their children, Samantha and Jacob; as well as his parents, Dianna Purser and Melvin (Poe) Sullivan; and brothers Chad and Corey.