A group of 130 Oregon doctors wants the state of Oregon to stop the permitting process for coal exports until the health risks have been reviewed.
Today the Physicians for Social Responsibility outlined numerous health risks from coal dust, coal train diesel emissions and air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Asia.
The group teamed up with Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Environmental Justice Task Force and the Yakama Nation to ask the for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment of coal exports.
The request was echoed by 11 neighborhood associations in North Portland that have passed resolutions opposing coal exports.
Andy Harris, an opthamologist and a faculty member at Oregon Health and Science University’s Global Health Center, said coal dust and the diesel particulate from coal trains would increase the risk of asthma attacks, bronchitis, emphysema, stroke, heart attacks and cancer.
The particles from these pollutants get into the lung’s bronchioles, which are “like sponges,” he said. “They are really good at absorbing toxic substances and transporting them right down the bronchial tree. … As physicians, we feel there’s a significant risk to human health that would come from exporting coal through the state.”
The physicians group referenced numerous studies on the effects of inhaled diesel emissions and fugitive coal dust from coal trains to support their position.
Regna Merritt of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility referenced a number she said was initially posted on Burlington Northern’s website that shows trains lose 3 percent of their coal loads during transportation.
“If you live near the tracks, that’s going to be bad news for you – for both your lungs and your heart,” she said.
Ben Duncan chairs the Environmental Justice Task Force said his group is concerned about disproportionate health risks to tribal lands, minority communities in North and Northeast Portland, and Latino and low-income neighborhoods in West Eugene.
“Coal trains that would travel through these over-burdened and traditionally underrepresented communities are an environmental justice issue that must not be ignored,” he said.
Kristina Proszek is the environmental review coordinator for the Yakama Nation. She said all six coal export projects would impact the tribal resources, including salmon. The Morrow Pacific project in particular threatens four tribal fishing sites and the tribal fishing rights to use them, she said.
The Health Impact Assessment process is relatively new in the state of Oregon. The state has done assessments for wind energy development in Eastern Oregon and Metro’s Climate Smart Communities greenhouse gas reduction plan. They involve several stages of analysis and include public hearings. An assessment for coal exports would take at least a year, according to Merritt.
Richard Whitman, natural resource policy advisor to Gov. Kitzhaber, said the state won’t consider doing its own health impact assessment until it hears back from two federal agencies on a request for an even more comprehensive review of coal exports that includes health impacts.
“Our best option is seeing what the federal government is going to do,” he said. “The governor has already asked the federal agencies involved in this to do a comprehensive environmental assessment of this, which would include looking at health impacts or issues. In terms of doing a health impact assessment in the meantime it would be premature of us to do one at this point until we hear what they’re going to do under the Federal Environmental Policy Act.”
He said the state expects to hear an answer to its request for a programmatic environmental impact statement in September.
Merritt said the assessment doesn’t have to be done by the state of Oregon, she said. It could be done by a private company, the federal government or another state.
Liz Fuller, a spokeswoman for Morrow Pacific with Gard Communications, said the company is already required to “look at public health” in its environmental review for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The company has also opposed the governor’s request for a more comprehensive federal review.
“We feel the current rules are adequate,” she said. “We want to go through the regulatory process and have it be predictable. We’re not assuming this is a delay tactic, but it effectively changes the rules midstream.”