Monday, August 8, 2011

Community Health and the Gateway Pacific Project

So I was reading the most recent batch of e-mails posted on the County Planning Department’s “Gateway Pacific” coal terminal webpage, because really, who wouldn’t?

All right, normal people with lives wouldn’t, but I was curious. What are people thinking about the project?

Believe it or not, the vast majority of the 214 e-mail pages posted for the week of July 23rd through July 29th* are repetitious and, as a result, tedious beyond words. For the most part, a citizen writes in, stating concerns about the project, and the County replies with a three-page form letter. That’s something like 200 of the 214 pages.

In the middle of all of this deja-vu-all-over-again, though, I was interested to read a series of e-mails that developed Whatcom County’s position about whether and how we should consider health impacts relating to the project.

Whatcom County’s Health Officer prepared the following statement after consulting with other departments in the County, and “in response to queries we have received from colleagues at DOH [the State Department of Health] and other LHJs [that acronym is sorely testing my acronym acuity, but I’m guessing Local Health Jurisdictions] about a request by a coalition of Whatcom County physicians for a formal state or federal Health Impact Assessment of the proposed project:”:

Whatcom County Health Department and the Gateway Pacific Terminal Project
Greg Stern, MD, Health Officer, July 28, 2011
Whatcom County is a co‐leading agency, along with Washington State Department of Ecology, in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process regarding the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) Project proposal. The Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) is participating as Whatcom County staff on the Multi‐Agency Permitting Team (MAP Team).

The health department will be involved in defining the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the technical document on potential environmental impacts of the proposed project, which is used by the various permitting agencies to determine whether or not to issue a permit. The co‐lead agencies (with input from the MAP Team and the public) will decide on the scope of the EIS, choose the contractor to do the environmental impact assessment and report, and review and accept or return for revision the draft EIS and the final EIS. The EIS is an advisory document, and not a permit decisionmaking process. It may be used by permitting agencies as the basis for a denial of a permit, if adverse impacts cannot be mitigated, or a permit may be issued despite the determination of adverse impacts. Both the content of the EIS and the permitting decisions may be challenged in court.

WCHD is the department within Whatcom County responsible for reviewing the aspects of the project that may impact human health adversely. We will consult with Washington State Department of Health, other affected local health departments and districts, our medical community, and other federal and state public health agencies in our deliberations. Although the EIS contractor will be tasked with researching and assessing the potential health impacts of the project, WCHD will be instrumental in framing the questions for the contractor to address, and in reviewing and requesting revisions, if needed, on the health aspects of the draft and final EIS.

Whatcom Docs, a coalition of Whatcom County physicians, has requested state and federal public health agencies to perform a formal Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The Whatcom County Health Department believes that potential health impacts can be addressed in NEPA/SEPA process through the scoping and development of the EIS, given that SEPA assessment addresses air quality, surface water movement/quantity/quality, noise, releases or potential releases to the environment affecting public health, such as toxic or hazardous materials, and vehicular traffic. (See SEPA, WAC 197‐11‐444, Elements of the Environment.‐11‐444 )
At this point, WCHD plans to include in our scoping recommendation questions of the impact at the terminal and along the transport route of:
  • the health impacts (carcinogenic, toxic, and irritative, especially in regard to asthma triggers) of coal dust, and diesel combustion byproducts;
  • the impacts on sleep and stress‐related illnesses in proximity to rail transport of noise and vibration associated with transport of coal; and,
  • the health impact of obstacles to emergency vehicles in timely response to emergencies in areas whose access require crossing railroads.

Quantifying the risk associated with a potential impact is a critical aspect of the assessment, and we welcome input from concerned citizens and health care professionals on other health aspects to be considered in the assessment of the health impacts of the proposed project. The purpose of the EIS is to determine if a potential impact is significant, and if significant, whether or not it can be mitigated.

Some of these issues that we and our community identify may or may not be included in the scope of the EIS, even after the public review and court challenges. Concerns not addressed in the EIS can still be brought to the permitting agencies and to court in appealing permitting decisions.
Here’s the link:, at 201 of 214.

What could be more fundamental to a community than its health? It is really responsible of Whatcom County to recognize this and to work with other agencies and with the EIS contractor to make sure that we have the information that we need about the Gateway Pacific project. Some days, I’m really proud of us.

Update, August 9:

Whatcom Docs issued a position paper, with supporting studies, this morning; here's the link.

The position paper is posted on a new web site, Coal Train Facts, One of my favorite features is Paul K. Anderson's photo gallery of coal mining and transport:

*The County is posting e-mails in big bunches based on date of submission, which is good from the perspective of "not paying taxes to hire government employees who sort through e-mails” but bad from the perspective of “a person interested in the Gateway Pacific project who would like to have a life but can’t because she has to read through 214 pages of e-mails.”


  1. Jean today at 10 am 160 physicians will be going forward with a position statement that details the health risks and likely impacts of the proposed coal terminal and trains that will bring the coal to our community. A Health Impact Assessment is needed in addition to the EIS process to fully and independently determine the full impact on the lives and health of people that live here. I will send you a copy as soon as it is public. Frank James MD

  2. Dear Whatcom DOCS:

    We applaud you for your courage and look forward to your statement. The diesel particulates from trains and ships; delays to emergency services; and health issues associated with interrupted sleep should be huge concerns for us all.

    Thank you all,

    Bob Ferris
    RE Sources for Sustainable Communities

  3. It is tough to imagine how to find research on this topic, however... I am concerned with living in a county that provides so many dairy products. What will be the residual effect of coal dust in the silage will be on children's health in particular. Dairy animals consume huge amounts of grass and can concentrate into their milk any toxins.

    This has become an issue with dairy farms living next to 'coal ash' [1-4] disposal sites and coal plants. Although coal trains probably won't present as much exposure, the wind blows far and wide through Whatcom County some months of the year. Certainly, some of the products from coal dust will make it into dairy and agriculture here in Whatcom County. Some areas may be more at risk than others.