WASHINGTON and Oregon are in the middle of an intense debate about whether to expand facilities to ship coal to Asia.
As a former resident of Washington state and one who has family that lives in the area, I have followed this issue with interest. As a scientist who spent my career in toxicology evaluating human health risks, what I am seeing in this debate concerns me.
What I find most troublesome is how anecdotal evidence and opinions of a handful of people, rather than scientific evidence, are being used in an attempt to sway the public on the export terminals.
A coalition of environmental groups recently put coal companies and BNSF Railway on notice that they intend to bring a lawsuit over coal dust from uncovered railway cars. They claim the dust is causing damage to land and rivers along rail lines, and are mounting this campaign under a provision of the Clean Water Act, which gives companies 60 days to respond before the suit is filed in federal court.
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Coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana is currently being shipped by rail to ports in Washington state and Oregon. Some groups opposed to expanding ports in the Northwest claim the trains leave coal dust along the rail lines that skirt the Columbia River and Puget Sound.
We are told, for example, someone saw something fall off a train. Or someone else found a chunk of coal in a river. This is not the kind of science-based approach needed to inform public-policy decisions on this important issue. In the campaign to block expansion of export terminals, some important facts are being left out of the debate.
For starters, claiming that finding a piece of coal on the ground or in the water leads in a direct line to a health or environmental risk violates one of the basic tenets of toxicology and risk assessment — the mere presence of a substance does not indicate harm. There are other factors that need to be taken into account, the main one being exposure.
Just because a piece of coal is found in the water or coal dust is found near a rail track does not mean humans are exposed to it. Coal is not a substance that breaks down easily. Coal is relatively innocuous. Simply moving it by trains or trucks or barges does not equate to a risk to the environment or human health.
Coal continues to play an important role in meeting energy needs around the world, with steady improvements made in its transport and use. Coal has been transported through the Northwest by rail for decades and there has never been any evidence of harm associated with this rail transport.
There needs to be robust and open debate on the merits of expanding the export terminals. These terminals, which serve as a gateway to Asia, have been an important part of the regional economy for more than a century. Debate over the terminals should be grounded in scientific facts and analysis. Well-established scientific approaches should be used to evaluate any potential environmental and human-health impacts.
Scientific assessments such as the one being conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers should provide clarity and context for decisions by public officials. Science-based assessments should also identify any constraints needed to assure protection of the environment and public health. The public at large should encourage and, indeed, demand such assessments.
Until such assessments are completed, it is plainly irresponsible to release exaggerated claims and mislead the public and regulators about the impact of transporting coal through the Northwest. Over the long run, pseudoscience and alarmist claims serve no one in this debate. Regulators and the public need an honest assessment on any potential risks based on sound science and clearheaded reasoning.
Roger O. McClellan, an expert on toxicology and human health-risk analysis, is former chairman of the National Research Council Committee on Toxicology, past Chairman of EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and a member of the Institute of Medicine.