Let families know the health risks posed by coal trains

January 25, 2013 

Nobody likes going to the doctor. It’s nothing personal against me, a family physician. I understand patients worry about what I might find, but we can all agree that no matter how bad a problem might be, the sooner we know what it is, the better we can treat it.

In November and December, Washington was rocked by massive public comment hearings around the coal terminal proposal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. Thousands converged on hearings around the state to publicly voice concerns about the plan to ship nearly 50 million tons of coal to Asia. This joint project between Peabody Energy and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (Warren Buffet’s company, on whose board Bill Gates sits) would add between nine and 18 coal trains, up to 11/2 miles long, to the current train schedules running daily through Western Washington.

Tuesday marked the close of the 121-day public comment period for the Cherry Point terminal proposal. Local, state and federal agencies will have much to consider in determining the scope of their Environmental Impact Statement. But their study should not stop there.

The Washington Academy of Family Physicians (WAFP), which represents more than 3,000 physicians across the state, is requesting a comprehensive health impact assessment prior to approval of the Cherry Point terminal.

The WAFP is asking for a better understanding of the effects this would have on public health. We are requesting data on potential health impacts from increases in pollution from diesel particulates and coal dust, delays to emergency vehicles at railroad crossings, and increases in noise pollution in our communities.

BNSF has estimated that one loaded coal car loses as much as 500 pounds of dust in transit from mine to terminal. Coal dust is known to cause increases in chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis and ischemic stroke. Additionally, coal contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and uranium, which have the potential to leach into the soil and groundwater across the state.

Areas that are subject to high levels of coal dust also see increased levels of infant mortality and decreased life expectancies. One coal train – with 125 individual cars – could expel more than 60,000 pounds of coal dust in a single trip.

The diesel engines pulling the trains will also release dangerous particulates into the air. These particulates have been linked to impaired pulmonary development in adolescents, increased cardiopulmonary mortality, a rise in severity and frequency of asthma attacks and an increased risk of cancer among nonsmokers.

Yes, a few temporary jobs will be created by the coal export project, but what are the risks? The proposed coal transport corridor would affect more than five million Washingtonians, the vast majority of the state’s total population. With so many unknown risks that could impact so many people, it is incumbent upon our government to provide answers to these critical and consequential questions.

I write not just as a physician, but also as someone who understands the deadly impacts of coal first-hand. My grandfather died of pneumoconiosis – black lung disease – after working a lifetime in the coal mines. He was never told of the potential health risks, and he was never able to make an informed choice for himself.

As family physicians, the WAFP believes that prior to the project moving forward, our patients deserve a comprehensive assessment of the potential health risks from exporting coal through our state. They deserve the right to understand fully what that would mean for their health. Then, as a community, we can make an informed decision.

Melissa Weakland, a member of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, practices in Seattle.

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