The Democratic Process in Operation

Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Pacific International Terminals has proposed building a deep-water marine terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County on Puget Sound. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would handle import and export of up to 54 million dry metric tons per year of bulk commodities, mostly coal for export. The US Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Ecology and Whatcom County (collectively referred to as the Co-Lead Agencies) are preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) and recently concluded a series of seven meetings throughout Washington State to gather public comments on the scope of the EIS. More than 9,000 people attended these meetings. I was one of them.

CHE’s affiliated state group in Alaska (CHE-Alaska) has conducted several teleconference calls in the last couple of years that provide background information about likely health effects of this and similar terminals, including the transport of coal to and from the terminal:

  • May 12, 2010: Coal Development in Alaska: Threats to Human Health
  • August 1, 2011: Coal Mining in Alaska: Hazards to Human Health and the Environment
  • September 29, 2011: The Role of Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) in Decisions that Affect Communities: A Case Study of Proposed Coal Mining in the Matanuska Valley
  • November 30, 2011: Breathe Free: Protecting Human Health from Toxic Coal Dust
  • February 15, 2012: Coal’s Assault on Human Health
  • April 25, 2012: Assessing the Public Health Impacts of Coal Transportation and Export: From Whatcom County, Washington, to Seward, Alaska

Recordings of all these calls are archived on the CHE-Alaska website.

One of the speakers on these calls, Frank James, MD , with Whatcom Docs, has called for a full, formal health impact assessment of this project along the full corridor of transport  (See the Whatcom Docs statement and more about health impact assessments from The National Academies)

Armed with this information, I arrived at the Washington Convention Center in Seattle ready to submit comments to the Co-Lead Agencies. I was not prepared for the more than 2,000 other individuals who also arrived to comment. The atmosphere was fairly festive, with signs, t-shirts, a few costumes, and a variety of activities happening all around. A silent sit-down protest occupied one landing on the six flights up to the ballroom where the meeting was held. Volunteers from several groups handed out stickers, and hand-held signs were everywhere.  The two large public comment rooms were overflowing with several hundred people each, and despite the size of the crowd and the passion on both sides, the proceedings were orderly, respectful and surprisingly quiet. Applause, hooting, booing or other auditory signs of agreement or disagreement were not allowed, and so audience members raised hands to convey agreement with what speakers said.

Comments were varied in both tone and substance. Reasons given to either approve or disapprove the project included health effects, jobs, our political balance of power with China, salmon and other wildlife in Puget Sound, climate change, corporate domination, air quality, water quality and having to wait for long trains. Some individuals made personal appeals to safeguard the health and convenience of loved ones, while others, including several elected officials, requested consideration of the whole populace; some speakers appealed to reason, while others spoke from emotion; some provided facts and figures, while others drew on traditions including a Jewish dirge and Tribal drumming.  The few pro-terminal speakers begged for jobs, while my favorite presentation countered that this project would certainly bring good-paying jobs to the area: respiratory therapists, cardiologists, oncologists, neonatal nurses and so on.

Selection for making comments during the three-hour hearing was by lottery. My number was not drawn to present comments before the crowd, but the Co-Lead Agencies allowed me and anyone else who was interested to record our allotted two minutes of comments and/or submit written comments for review. I also had a chance to speak with a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers about the scope of the EIS, asking why an HIA was not mentioned on any of the display materials. She indicated that the whole purpose of the hearing was to get input on the scope of the EIS, and if the Corps heard that an HIA was needed, they would consider making it part of the EIS.

I left the hearing with the feeling that my voice was presented as one of thousands of other voices. I’m now eager to see whether the Co-Lead Agencies conduct a formal HIA before deciding whether to permit this project. Only an HIA will take into consideration the impact of the transport of the coal on the health of residents in Washington State and beyond. From blowing coal dust to an increase in diesel emissions from trains and ships, plus the impacts of burning the coal on both climate change and air and water quality, the potential health impacts of this terminal are substantial and need to be considered alongside any potential economic benefits from the project.

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