One of the Portland area’s top elected officials has ordered a study on the health impacts of coal dust and diesel emissions. The study comes as Portland, Seattle, and other Northwest cities consider the possibility of trains passing through, delivering tons of coal from Montana and Wyoming to be shipped across the Pacific.
Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen said he ordered the study because he wants answers to basic questions.
“We need facts,” he said. “How much coal dust will be released into our neighborhoods? How dangerous is this coal dust? How dangerous are the toxic heavy metals contained in this coal dust? How risky is the significant new diesel particulate pollution in our community?”
The Multnomah County Health Department is expected to deliver its report next month. It appears to be the first local study of potential health impacts caused by coal export train traffic in the Northwest. The Coal industry and local economic development boosters are advocating for as many as five coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington.
Coal export advocates have said the health risks of more coal trains would be minimal.
The Multnomah County Health Department’s director, Dr. Lillian Shirley, said her staff already is gathering data on diesel emissions and coal dust. They also will identify the community’s most vulnerable people, including those with asthma and those who live near the train routes.
Portland resident Suzanne Clarke stood with county officials during Monday’s press conference. Clarke is worried about the proposed coal exports because her daughter was diagnosed with asthma at age 2.
“It’s really something to see your 2-year-od child gasping for air, her chest caving in with each breath. The color leaving her lips. Her inability to even talk to her mom,” Clarke said.
After her daughter’s hospitalization, Clarke said she began researching the air quality in Portland and was surprised to find that Multnomah County’s air quality carries a high risk for respiratory illnesses. She said she moved her for “green living” and hopes the coal export plans are aborted.
Cogen said the county’s stance on coal exports will hinge on what the County Health Department finds and reports.
That study will be done with existing staff and will not require additional funding, Health Department’s Shirley said.
Cogen said he also is encouraging the Oregon Health Authority to conduct similar health risk studies for other communities along the proposed coal routes. He also has asked the county’s emergency response team to analyze how more trains will impact the county’s ability to handle emergency situations.
(Hover over markers to hear reports on coal in communities of the Northwest. Then click “website” for more EarthFix coverage. Click here for larger map view. Note: Train routes are approximations. They illustrate potential corridors based on existing lines and publicly available information.)