A group of 160 Whatcom County doctors and health professionals is calling for a comprehensive review of the health impacts from the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo pier proposed at Cherry Point.
The group, calling itself Whatcom Docs, contends that both coal dust and diesel emissions from trains and ships have been shown to have harmful impacts on human health. They want a specific study on how Gateway Pacific would impact health in Whatcom County and elsewhere along the railroad lines leading to the pier.
Besides the coal dust and diesel exhaust, the doctors also call for study of potential local health impacts from added railroad noise and disruption of emergency traffic at rail crossings.
Gateway Pacific, proposed by SSA Marine of Seattle, could require as many as nine coal trains per day if it is built to full capacity. Those trains would travel through Bellingham full and go back the same way after unloading, en route to mines in the Rocky Mountains.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"The particulate matter in diesel pollution is very much like cigarette smoke," said internist Pam Laughlin, a member of Whatcom Docs. "We wouldn't want to expose our children to toxins like that."
Diesel particulate pollution, like cigarette smoke, has been linked to cancer and other heart and lung problems, Laughlin said.
Don Stark, a spokesman for SSA Marine, said Department of Ecology air pollution statistics for Whatcom County indicate that locomotive exhaust is only a small fraction of the particulate pollution in the air here - about six-tenths of one percent of the total. Wood stoves account for about 35 percent.
"Reducing wood stove particulates by 2 percent would be equal to eliminating all of the locomotive particulates," Stark said.
Stark also argued that the EPA is phasing in stringent new emissions standards for both ship and locomotive diesel engines that are expected to reduce their particulate outputs to a fraction of their current levels by 2040.
His arguments did not impress Laughlin.
She said the health effect of locomotive emissions would be far more significant for many city residents who live near the tracks. People who work on and around trucks and trains have been shown to have a higher incidence of cancer and heart and lung ailments. She also noted that the EPA's new regulations will have no immediate effect on existing locomotives, applying only to remanufactured and newly-built engines. As she sees it, local pollution levels could increase significantly before the new rules take full effect.
Gib Morrow, internal medicine specialist, said the group wants the potential health impacts to get study all along the rail lines from the mines to the pier. While he agreed that there are many other sources of particulate emissions, he doesn't think that lets SSA off the hook.
"In some ways we're all responsible for particulate air pollution, but this is a quantum leap in what's going to be released into our immediate atmosphere," Morrow said.
As Morrow sees it, the particulate emissions triggered by Gateway Pacific coal trains could add significantly to the local incidence of cancer, heart and respiratory disease.
Both Morrow and Laughlin also cited potential deaths resulting from delays in getting emergency medical attention to heart attack and stroke victims, if rail crossings are blocked for longer periods.
"There are very limited windows of opportunity to save heart muscle and brain cells," Morrow said.
WHATCOM DOCS' VIEWS
Read Whatcom Docs' position paper and scientific references at coaltrainfacts.org.