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Health study: Diesel fumes bigger hazard than coal dust

BNSF diesel locomotive

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

Diesel emissions from trains, boats and heavy equipment would pose a bigger risk to public health than coal dust if Millennium Bulk Terminals builds its proposed coal dock west of Longview, according to an updated health assessment of the project.

The report says there would likely be an increase in the number and severity of some types of diseases related to diesel emissions.

And it calls for expanded monitoring of air quality, include stations for diesel exhaust and coal dust along transportation corridors.

These are among the findings of the Health Impact Assessment that the Cowlitz County Department of Building and Planning released at noon Monday. The study, in the works since 2015, includes a host of recommendations on how to protect the public and vulnerable neighborhoods near the rail line running to the terminal site and how to improve community prosperity.

The assessment does not have a direct role in permitting decisions. It states that it is a public health tool to help the community understand how the project would affect public health. The project itself is in jeopardy due to a mass of legal challenges and permit denials.

Millennium wants to build the largest coal export dock on the U.S. West Coast at the former Reynolds Metals Co. aluminum plant.

Wendy Hutchinson, senior vice president of external affairs for Millennium, said by email that the company will reserve comment about the study because it has not had a chance to review the assessment.

Hutchinson said, though, that Millennium has designed the terminal to protect air and water quality and fisheries. The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project found the terminal would meet environmental standards, she said, even though the state has declined to issue a water quality certification to the project.

The health assessment focuses on neighborhoods near the proposed terminal along the BNSF Railway line in Cowlitz County. Nick Fazio, of the county Building and Planning Department, said this includes the area within a mile of the proposed site, as well as areas along the rail spurs used to transport coal.

The Cowlitz County Health and Human Services Department and the State Department of Health supervised the study, which was partly guided by a steering committee made up of 15 community members. Fazio said Millennium paid for county staff time to develop the report.

In December 2017, the committee received more than 3,000 public comments on a draft health assessment.

Many public comments voiced fears that the project would worsen lung and heart diseases and increase cancer rates in a community already suffering above-average rates of these diseases. According to the assessment, there would likely be an increase in the number and severity of some types of diseases related to diesel emissions.

The assessment states that while it is estimated more coal dust would be emitted than diesel particulate matter, it’s likely diesel emissions would have greater impacts on health because they are more toxic and finer, meaning that they can go deeper into lungs.

There are no federal standards specific to diesel particles or coal dust, but Washington designates diesel particulate matter as a cancer-causing toxic air pollutant. The health assessment states the proposed terminal wouldn’t cause the area to exceed national air quality standards for particulates, but it estimates that small particle levels would increase at some locations to 89 percent of the standard.

The terminal would require 16 mile-long trains a day — eight bearing coal, the other eight exiting empties — to transit the rail corridor from the Longview Wye to the Millennium site. About half of the diesel emissions connected to the project would come from locomotives, about 30 percent from boats and the remaining 20 percent from other equipment.

About 60 trains a day already pass through Cowlitz County on the BNSF Railway main lines.

Research has found exposure to small and large particle matter leads to declines in lung function and worsening of heart and lung diseases, according to the assessment. The effects depend on length and volume of exposure and individual’s sensitivity to particulates, the study says.

At the highest estimated diesel exposure, there would be an increased cancer risk of 50 cases per 1 million people, according to the report. (That’s five additional cases in a county of 103,000, the population of Cowlitz County.) But few people would be exposed to that level because residents don’t usually stay in their homes all day every day, according to the assessment.

Health data shows Cowlitz County residents already experience higher than average rates of death and hospitalization for some diseases related to air pollution. Adding additional risk to a community that already has health disparities becomes an “environmental justice issue,” the report says. Fazio explained that there is no official environmental justice policy, but the statement raises a question of values.

The draft recommendations suggest local government should expand air quality monitoring to include stations for diesel exhaust and coal dust along transportation corridors. It also suggests the county health department work with Millennium and the Southwest Clean Air Agency to identify opportunities to reduce diesel exhaust emissions, such as working with BNSF Railway to deploy battery-powered locomotives.

The draft recommendations state Millennium should complete studies to identify and reduce noise problems within one mile of the project site and the rail spurs leading to it.

While the health assessment and recommendations speak to the proposed terminal, the information and suggestions are also relevant even if the project didn’t exist and could apply to a different project, Fazio said.

“It’s a valuable document regardless of what happens with this individual development,” Fazio said.

Many of the recommendations make suggestions for local governments, such as identifying a long-term plan for community prosperity, workforce preparedness and supporting employers who use environmentally-friendly technology and sustainable use of resources.

Quoting Millennium, the assessment states the terminal would create about 135 permanent jobs and 1,350 construction jobs. The number of permanent positions is small relative to the area’s top employers, the report says, comparing terminal employment to a smaller retail big-box store, though with higher average wages.

Fazio said the steering committee will review the report and draft recommendations before holding a public workshop where it will finalize the recommendations. There is no set date for the workshop, but it will most likely be within the next four weeks, he said. The final recommendations will be incorporated into the health assessment and released to the public.


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