Concerns over the adverse health effects of more trains carrying coal through Whatcom County dominated the discourse at a Birch Bay forum focused on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.
Bellingham based environmental group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, an outspoken opponent of the proposed $600 million shipping terminal, organized the forum, which drew about 50 attendees to the Birch Bay Bible Community Church Tuesday evening. The forum hosted three speakers who spoke on the various negative side effects the terminal could bring to Birch Bay and other communities on the rail corridor.
Seattle-based shipping terminal company SSA Marine has faced adamant push back against its proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, which is slated to transfer 54 million tons of dry-bulk commodities, such as coal and grain, annually from trains to massive transport ships. SSA Marine plans to ship up to 48 million tons of coal through the terminal once it is operating at full capacity.
Matt Krogh, the North Sound Baykeeper for RE Sources, said the terminal project has gone from 8 million tons annual capacity in 1992, when the terminal was originally proposed, to nearly seven times that in 2011. SSA Marine did not include coal as possible commodity in the 1992 proposal but has since added it because Asian markets are buying coal at a higher price than domestic ones, Krogh said.
RE Source’s main concern about the updated proposal is the addition of coal, Krogh said. Coal dust coming from trains in transport and blowing away from open-air storage areas, such as the ones that the Gateway Pacific Terminal will employ, has the potential to harm the health of both humans and wildlife, he explained.
“There are impacts at every part of, and every stage of, this rail line,” Krogh said.
The terminal would receive trains, estimated at 10 to 15 per day, carrying coal from mines in Wyoming. Coal trains of this type can reach 1.5 miles in length and cause six-to eight-minute waits at crossings, Krogh said.
The health effects of coal dust and the possible delays for emergency vehicles are two of the reasons Bellingham-based physician Frank James, M.D., got involved with the recently formed Whatcom Docs. The organization is a collection of 160 county doctors who have come together to request a comprehensive assessment of how the Gateway Pacific Terminal will affect the health of county residents, James said.
“I was impressed 160 doctors could agree on anything,” James said.
Whatcom Docs poured over nearly 400 scientific studies that examined the effects of coal dust and diesel emissions on human health and determined the increase in diesel-powered trains carrying coal will have significant negative health effects, James explained. The effects could include increased levels of asthma and heart trouble in the communities surrounding the terminal and even the possibility of cancer and death, he said.
“Families, children and parents will die because of this,” James said. “I would love to be wrong about this.”
The physicians who did the research were not able to determine how many people might die, but James said that’s all the more reason to call for a health impact assessment from the state health department. Though such an assessment will be expensive, James said it is vital because the county-mandated environmental impact statement (EIS), which SSA Marine will pay for, will not necessarily cover all the negative health effects.
“Some people think the EIS is going to save us,” James said. “I don’t have that illusion.”
In addition to the local health effects, the forum also touched on the global implications of allowing coal to be shipped from Wyoming’s massive coal mines. Robin Everett, from the Seattle office of the Sierra Club, said coal should be downplayed as an acceptable energy resource because of the negative effects burning it has on the environment. She said stopping the terminal from being built would not necessarily reduce the global coal supply, but it would make it more expensive to burn.
“We have a moral obligation to keep [the U.S.’s] coal in the ground,” Everett said.
Meeting attendees mostly showed support for the speakers’ views against the terminal, but some wondered how more jobs could be created in rural Whatcom County without the project. Others said environmentally friendly jobs should be the county’s focus, not those that promote the burning of coal.
All the speakers at the meeting emphasized the public’s roll in the terminal’s upcoming permitting process. They said any concerns the meeting attendees have should be aired once the county holds public hearings on what the EIS should study.
“We have a choice,” Everett said.