The Skanner, March 12, 2013
Coal Foes Rally in Salem to Highlight Health and Environmental Risks of Trains
At least nine schools in Multnomah County are on the railroad route: Roosevelt High, Rosa Parks Elementary, George Middle, Woodlawn Elementary, Faubion, Helensview High, Parkrose High, Shaver Elementary and Troutdale Elementary.
Meltzer says three schools in Scapoose, close to a projected export terminal also are very close to the tracks.
Multnomah County Health Departmentissued a report on the proposal last week, calling for a regional impact study before any decision is made. That’s supported by Whatcom County Docs, a group of around 200 doctors in Washington state, who have reviewed current scientific findings on coal transportation and pollution.
“The effects of air pollution are not hypothetical, but real and measurable,” the doctors say in a report. “Many of the reviewed studies, some of which were conducted in the Seattle area, show significant health effects of exposure to everyday airborne pollutant levels that are below national U.S. Environment Protection Agency guidelines.
“As physicians, we feel the risks to human health from massive coal shipments across our state and through our communities are significant, and we call for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment, in addition to an Environmental Impact Statement, addressing these issues along the entire rail corridor.”
Increased noise levels from trains are also a health risk, the doctors note. Noise has been linked to heart disease, stroke, sleep disorders, mental illness, and damage to children’s brain development. Another potential harmful impact would be delays to emergency traffic such as ambulances.
How Much Coal Dust? We Don't Know.
The 19-20 percent increase in train traffic would increase diesel emissions from the trains, as well as send an undetermined amount of coal dust into the air. How much? Nobody knows.
“I don’t think there are any reliable estimates right now that the public can review,” says Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, an environmental nonprofit. Railroad companies have offered some numbers but their estimates vary widely vary widely, de Place says.
“We have a mountain of research that shows coal dust is extremely hazardous in an enclosed environment in an occupational setting. But the public has not seen research on incidental exposure to coal dust, and there are really good reasons to be concerned.”
Besides the coal trains traveling on the south side of the Columbia, other plans would bring coal through Portland on barges traveling down the Columbia, and the proposals also call for additional trains to travel through Washington state on the north side of the Columbia River.
Race, Poverty and Pollution
People of color, poor people and the elderly are disproportionately represented among those likely to be most affected. That’s a concern, because those groups already suffer from higher rates of heart disease; asthma and other lung diseases; cancer; and other problems, which can be worsened by air pollution and the stress of train traffic.
Children too are at higher risk because coal dust, diesel particulates and noise have been shown to hurt their development. A child whose lungs are damaged, for example, may suffer from decreased lung function for their whole lives.
Studies have shown that miners and people living close to coal mining suffer from ailments connected to the dust. But far less is known about the impact of coal from trains. Weather conditions, track conditions, the type of coal and how it is loaded all may play a part.
One study by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Co. found that spraying a chemical on the coal cut 85 percent of the coal dust. But other railroad companies called that study “junk science” in an Oct. 1 filing to the Surface Transportation Board.
This article originally appeared here.
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