Some 160 doctors in Washington’s upper left corner have raised health concerns about a proposed coal-shipping port a few miles north of Bellingham.
A medical coalition known as Whatcom Docs published a position paper Tuesday (Aug. 9) that predicts a “significant increase” in airborne pollutants from diesel-powered coal trains and hundreds of huge cargo ships, servicing the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Seattle-based SSA Marine wants to build the terminal at Cherry Point.
SSA Marine took immediate issue with the doctors and pointed to state studies showing much greater concerns with other air-pollution sources in Whatcom County.
The doctors warned against increased air pollution along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor if the project is approved.
“It’s hard to get two doctors to agree about anything,” Dr. Gib Morrow of Bellingham told Crosscut. “But we’ve seen peer-reviewed, reproducible studies that show an increase in lung and heart disease, resulting from diesel pollution. Kids within 206 meters (650 feet) of a freight corridor have been found to have twice the normal hospitalization rates for asthma and other respiratory ailments.”
Morrow said he and the other signers are concerned that public health impacts have not become a major item in public discussion around the terminal and the increased freight traffic it will generate. “We want to be sure these issues get the attention they deserve,” he said.
Morrow indicated that the doctors will press for a thorough airing of public health concerns when county, state, and federal agencies begin “scoping” hearings to decide what impacts need to be studied before deciding whether to grant the permits SSA Marine the needs for building the giant terminal. “We believe the health effects should be investigated, over and above the regular environmental impact studies for projects of this kind,” he said.
The Whatcom Docs position paper links diesel exhaust particles with lung problems including asthma, and with an increased probability of heart attacks. It tags coal dust, which escapes from the trains during transport, as a cause of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The paper also raises the likelihood of emergency vehicles being unable to reach patients or to get them to a hospital, with one-and-a-half mile trains tying up street crossings for as long as five to 10 minutes.
A spokesman for SSA, Gary Smith, cited a study by the Washington Department of Ecology measuring air pollution by source. Wood stoves and fireplaces account for some 35 percent of such emissions in Whatcom County, according to Ecology’s review. Locomotives are 12th on the list, producing six-tenths of one percent of the particulate matter in the air.
Smith also told Crosscut that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to set new clean air standards for locomotives before SSA Marine proposes to start shipping coal, two or three years from now.
The company has maintained that environmental studies of Gateway Pacific Terminal should be restricted to activities and conditions at the port itself, at a biologically sensitive shoreline on the Strait of Georgia. This would exclude secondary environmental effects of some 18 daily coal trains, expected to be 1.5 miles in length, and hundreds of the world's largest cargo vessels hauling the Montana and Wyoming coal from Cherry Point to Asian ports.