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BNSF diesel locomotive

A BNSF diesel locomative engine. The company is currently exploring ways to increase automation in trains.

Bill Wagner, The Daily News

Opponents of the proposed Longview coal dock Friday urged a Cowlitz County health committee to recommend against the project, while a representative for Millennium Bulk Terminals argued the company’s presence has already improved the area’s health.

While the $680 million project has been hotly debated, only four people spoke at a morning workshop held by a steering committee tasked with condensing a 62-page health impact study. The study is expected to be presented as a smaller, easily-digestible document next month.

The committee is comprised of people who support the project and the economic development it would bring, as well as skeptics who worry Millennium can’t compensate for the terminal’s public health risks.

The study is not tied to the permitting process, although opponents argued Friday that the committee should use its findings to recommend abandoning the project.

The study tried to answer 15 questions about the project’s potential impact on public health, including the effect of diesel exhaust from trains carrying coal and the benefits of increased economic development and prosperity. One of its chief findings is that people living within a 2-mile corridor around the tracks would face an increased cancer risk of between 10 and 30 cases per million due to locomotive diesel exhaust. That translates to an increase of about one extra cancer death over 70 years.

ChrisTurner, a Kalama resident, said she was disappointed that Millennium has not made significant investments to reduce noise pollution along the railway in the six years since the project was first proposed. She also said she is concerned about surfactants — a compound sprayed on coal to prevent dispersal of dust.

Millennium requires workers handling surfactants to wear protective gear to protect against irritation.

“What about the the people who are walking next to the tracks, the people who live along the tracks, and the people who work in the ports, like Port of Kalama where these trains run through?” Turner asked.

Regna Merritt, a representative from Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, said her organization felt the study contains enough evidence to conclude the project’s health impacts cannot be reduced. The group, in cooperation with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, recently produced a 20-page critique of the study.

The groups recognized “the considerable time and effort” devoted to the study, but admonished the authors for releasing it Dec. 20, during the holiday season, and ending the public comment period on Jan. 5. This “did not permit gathering input from affected communities or those most vulnerable to negative impacts,” the groups wrote.

Merritt also said the study does not account for increased noise pollution and does not analyze the potential economic effects of negative health outcomes.

Diane Dick, a community member opposed to the terminal, said she believed the Cowlitz County Building and Planning Department’s lead role on the health study gives an appearance of a conflict of interest. The county recently threw its legal support behind the project when a county hearings examiner denied Millennium a key shoreline permit.

“I don’t know how the county manages to do this and maintain an objective role in this process,” she said.

Speaking last for Millennium, Vice President of Business Development Peter Bennett said the company believes in responsible economic development that benefits community health. Bennett noted the company has poured more than $25 million into cleaning up the site of the former Reynolds Metals aluminum plant and offers family-supporting wages and health benefits to its employees.

Bennett said Millennium has also played an active role in the community by awarding grants to health-related programs such as Meals on Wheels. And the company has allowed local fire departments to train on the abandoned buildings at its site, he said.

“I would argue that Cowlitz County and Longview are better because of the existence of Millennium,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done and what we’re trying to do, and when we do get our permits and build our project, the community health will be improved.”

The coal terminal has been one of the most hotly-debated projects on the Columbia River since Millennium first applied for permits five years ago. It would create more than 1,000 construction jobs, 130 permanent jobs and $5.4 million in annual state and local taxes.

The health committee will hold another public hearing on its study from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 20 in the Cowlitz County Administration Building, 3rd floor meeting room.

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