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Q&A: Frank James, M.D., Whatcom Docs

(Editor's Note: This is the fifth blog post in an ongoing series about proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest.)

Dr. Frank James is a member of Whatcom Docs, a group of medical doctors in Whatcom County, Wash., who are concerned about the health impacts of a proposed coal shipping terminal in Bellingham, Wash. The coal export terminal would ship up to 48 million tons of American coal overseas each year. The terminal operation would add approximately 30 miles of coal trains daily to the rail line that runs along the Puget Sound coast.

Dr. James is health officer for San Juan County, Wash. and for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and a professor of public health at the University of Washington. We recently chatted with Dr. James about the forming of Whatcom Docs and what role the group is playing in the battle over coal export in the Pacific Northwest.

How did Whatcom Docs get started?

One of my colleagues, a doctor named Sarah Mostad, sent out an email to all of the Whatcom County doctors. She basically said that she was worried about the proposed coal export. She wasn’t saying the projects were bad or wrong, just that she was worried. About 140 doctors responded, agreeing that they were also concerned. Now we have more than 200 doctors signed up. I have never heard this many doctors agree about anything; it’s unprecedented.

About a dozen of us came together to form the core of Whatcom Docs. The first thing we did—we’re scientists most of us—was we went to the evidence-based medical literature to see if there was a problem associated with the coal export projects. We looked at more than 400 articles and as we looked at them we picked up steam, because every article said coal export was a problem. We looked at issues like diesel particulate matter pollution, coal dust pollution, noise pollution, increased response times for medical personnel and so on. And we said to each other, “This really looks like a problem.”

What is it that Whatcom Docs would like to see happen with the proposed coal export projects?

Well, after a while we started meeting regularly to swap articles, write summaries of the articles and just look at things critically. And for a long time that’s all we did. When we met it was from about 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m.—after we were all done with work and family obligations. We gradually wrote a position paper that outlines core issues and generated an annotated bibliography to go with it. And we all kept each other honest. We’d say, let’s look at what we do know, not what we think or feel. It’s been wonderful that way—the group is genuinely diverse with very different political persuasions and backgrounds. But as a group we only want one thing: we want a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) done. We think an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is not adequate for examining the human health concerns of coal export.

Why do you think a Health Impact Assessment is so critical?

There are very general health impact requirements for assessment in EIS, but not at the level of a HIA. HIA’s are a relatively new thing, and are not enshrined in the law. That a HIA would be done is really an option, but not a requirement. There is a whole discussion going on right now about how we get a HIA factored into the decision making process. There are a couple of ways you can do it. One way is to negotiate it from the beginning and have it be part of the environmental review process. The problem with that is that you have these very arbitrary deadlines, you know, you have only 30 days to do this or 60 days to do that. The alternative would be to do an independent HIA, but the problem is finding the money. Probably about $200,000 is needed to do an adequate one. And then how do you get it to stick legally? You can always enter it as testimony in between the draft and final EIS, and supposedly it will be responded to in the final EIS. The midpoint between those two approaches is to get an HIA done independently, but negotiate it to be a part of the EIS from the beginning.

How would an HIA be different from an EIS?

Instead of averaging all the pollution across the entire county, an HIA would look at the amount of pollution in relation to the distance from the train tracks and look at the disease characteristics of people there. The closer you live to diesel particulate matter, the higher your risks are. What an HIA would tell you is who is going to be injured. Is it kids, old people, people near the tracks, people further away? If you look at the study of cancer rates at the switching yard in Spokane it showed there is a 20 percent cancer increase the closer you live to the yard—it’s a direct relation. The further you are away the safer you are, but if you live near it it’s a big deal. Typically an EIS takes a different approach. So I think an HIA would show that diesel particulate matter is a pretty big deal. Our data estimates that Washington State already spends $190 million a year from the baseline diesel particulate matter pollution and the coal export terminal would be a significant increase. This would be 100 diesel locomotives a day going through our community, so it would have a pretty big impact.

What’s been the response from mayors, local lawmakers, and so on?

SSA Marine, the company proposing the terminal project, has a huge public relations presence in our community. They have 20 people going door-to-door every day. They have hired some of the most respected members of our community to be their advocates. A longtime local grocery store owner has been recruited, a respected person, but now he is totally bought. Early on they collected every politician they could before this was even a public issue. So all of the mayors for all of the small towns in our county believe there is only good to come from this—jobs and tax revenue.

What’s your sense about how the general citizens in Whatcom County feel about the proposed coal export terminal?

I would say about 85 or 90 percent are against it. We had a pre-hearing discussion and 800 people showed up to oppose the terminal. What we really don’t want to do, we don’t want to just shove this onto some other community because we are organized and pushed it away. We’ve worked to get other physician groups on board. The family medicine group in Pierce County has passed a resolution asking for an HIA. The science says that people will die from this—we know this—and communities need to know that before it happens. There is data that shows that 15 to 30 percent of the atmospheric deposition of mercury that is in our community, in the lake that we drink from, is from coal-fired power plants in Asia. And that’s not an inconsequential thing. Pregnant women, women of child bearing age, and kids can’t eat the fish out of the lake where I get my water supply—already. So, that’s not theoretical, that’s a real thing and it will only get worse if we allow these coal export terminals.

Tags:  coal, coal exports

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