Monday, October 7, 2013

Health Impact Assessment needed for Port Metro Vancouver Coal Expansion

Last Thursday at the City of Langley Parks and Environment Committee meeting, I had the chance to hear Dr. Frank James, MD, who is the Public Health Officer for San Juan County in Washington. I invited him to speak about health impacts of coal and the transportation of coal.

Dr. James started his presentation by talking about how he and other medical doctors got together to see what peer-reviewed research was done on coal transportation, due to the large number of trains going through his community. After an extensive review, the doctors found a direct correlation between proximity to coal terminals and coal-carrying rail lines, and increased rates of cancer and asthma, especially in seniors and children. Coal trains provide a double-blow because both the coal dust and the diesel exhaust impacts human health. He also noticed that the noise from trains impacts life expectancy.

Another interesting fact is that most of the coal that is slated for export will be bound for China, and as Dr. James pointed out, pollution knows no borders. His community’s municipal water supply contains mercury from coal-burning power plants in China, whose fumes make their way over the Pacific Ocean and end up right back in North America.

As Port Metro Vancouver plans to massively increase coal exports, many residents in Metro Vancouver are concerned about the health impact of the transportation of coal through our region. But it’s not just residents who are concerned, so are the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities. Both are calling on Port Metro Vancouver to complete a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) for its proposed plan to ship more coal out of its facilities. I’ve posted a letter from December 2012 and earlier this year to the document archive of this site. To be frank, an HIA would reveal how many people would get sick, injured, or die as a result of the movement of coal in our region.

According to Fraser Health:

The regular inhalation of coal dust is deleterious to health. At the level of higher work place exposures this can lead to the development of anthracite lung, coalminer’s pneumoconiosis, emphysema and various other obstructive airway diseases. Even at lower levels coal dust can be associated with significant respiratory and cardiovascular disease and data exists to suggest that this can also have an adverse impact on pregnancy outcome.

The Fraser Health authority has ordered a HIA that will look at the effects of both coal-dust and increased rail traffic. Health authorities have provincial jurisdiction and Port Metro Vancouver is federally controlled. There is some uncertainly if the health authorities could legally compel the port to complete the HIA. It will likely take some political pressure.

For our part, the Parks and Environment Committee recommended that the City of Langley support the health authorities in calling for a full HIA for the movement of coal in our region. Council could vote on that recommendation at the October 21st council meeting.

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