Chair Jeff Cogen's prepared remarks on coal train export through Multnomah County
Prepared remarks by Chair Jeff Cogen delivered on Monday, Sept. 10 regarding his request to the Multnomah County Health Department to study the effects of coal train export through the county.
Thank you for coming. Were are here today to talk about the challenges facing our community as we face a potential dramatic increase in coal trains passing through our community intended for the export market in Asia.
Coal has been in the news a lot lately because there are no less than six proposals from the coal industry to transport coal through Oregon and Washington to Asia.
In almost all of these proposals, coal would likely be transported by open-topped rail cars through Multnomah County.
The railroad industries own estimates suggest that up to 500 pounds of coal dust can be released into the air per rail car and each coal train can have more than 100 rail cars.
As a father and as a community member, I’m concerned about airborne coal dust in the air we breathe, in our gardens, on our playgrounds, and in the farms, forests and fishing areas along the route of the train tracks through the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah County.
I’m also concerned about the impact of diesel pollution as a result of increased rail traffic and believe that our community has a right to know what adverse health impacts we might suffer if these proposals are given the green light to proceed.
Finally, I’m concerned about the impact the addition of so many new trains each day, most a mile long or longer, will have on our neighborhood livability and especially on our safety as these long, slow trains block intersections for 10 minutes or longer with the potential to significantly interfere with emergency response times.
That’s why today – in my role as the chair of the Multnomah County Board of Health -- I am directing the county’s Health Department to immediately conduct an assessment of the potential health risks these coal trains pose to our community and give recommendations for mitigating those effects.
And I am directing the County’s Office of Emergency Management to work with the Health Department to assess the impact that so many new trains - potentially doubling the total train traffic in our community - would have on our ability to effectively respond to emergencies and to identify potential steps to mitigate this impact.
Here’s what we already know:
Coal and coal dust contain toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead, which are linked to cancer and birth defects.
Inhaled coal dust can exacerbate asthma, and cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Asthma rates in Oregon are already too high – more than 10 percent of adults have asthma and nearly 10 percent of children suffer from the disease.
Coal dust also exacerbates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It can cause bronchitis and emphysema. It can make life difficult for seniors and people with certain disabilities who are more vulnerable to the effects of pollution.
The trains that haul the coal are pulled by engines that emit large quantities of diesel particulate matter -- a known carcinogen that is already present at extremely unhealthy levels in our local air.
Other government agencies at the local and state levels have expressed concerns.
Many local leaders, including me, have called upon the Federal Government to do a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of these coal export proposals
I hope they do so.
But as the local health authority, we can’t wait, hoping that others eventually take action.
Policy makers need to understand the risks now before these projects are approved so we can have an informed debate about the advantages and risks.
Communities need to know now.
Families need to know now.
That’s why today I am directing Multnomah County to begin this analysis.
There are people out there who say that trains carrying coal exports are perfectly safe. I hope they are right.
But it would be reckless to take such significant, potentially dangerous, steps based on hope alone.
We need facts.
The risks are far from clear - but there is very good reason for concern - and we won’t know for sure unless we ask the right questions.
- How much coal dust will be released into our neighborhoods?
- How dangerous is this coal dust?
- How risky is this significant new diesel particulate pollution?
- How dangerous are the toxic heavy metals in coal dust to public health?
Coal trains can be up to 1.5 miles long as they wind through neighborhoods. How often will they block intersections and stop people from getting help if there’s an emergency?
In some communities in the Northwest, coal trains have derailed, causing toxic messes. Recent coal train derailments in Illinois, Texas and Maryland over the last two months have even injured or killed people. Can we expect this in our community?
I want to know. I want to make sure the public knows. And I want to make sure the public understands what’s at risk.
Multnomah County government isn’t the most high-profile place. But I love my job because what we do is critical to the well being of all residents in our community.
It’s really important work...life and death important. We are entrusted with protecting and promoting your health.
And we have the responsibility to ensure that our community members have all the information you need to stay healthy.
That’s why I led the county’s efforts on banning toxics from plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. I’ve helped lead our Health Department in fighting childhood obesity.
I’ve been at the forefront in making sure our residents understand that making healthy choices now can protect your health and save taxpayers money in the future.
And I’ve been focusing on protecting our most vulnerable residents – like making sure residents in low-income neighborhoods or places where people of color live don’t get bombarded by pollutants, like diesel particulates, or other things that might be harmful to health.
We have a long way to go, but we’ve made progress.
We have so much to lose if we let our community’s health slide backward because we didn’t ask the right questions or looked the other way while potentially devastating decisions are being made.
The rail lines in Multnomah County slice through East County and North and Northeast Portland – right through areas that already experience the cumulative impacts from environmental hazards, and already experience health disparities associated in part to these risks.
We have a profound responsibility to understand the health impact of coal transport.
That’s why I am taking this action today. And that’s why I am encouraging the Oregon Health Authority to join with Multnomah County to do similar analysis for other affected parts of our state.
I am honored to be joined today by my colleagues Lillian Shirley, Multnomah County Health Department Director, Dr. Gary Oxman, Tri-County Health Officer, Joe Partridge, the Interim Director of the County’s Office of Emergency Management and Suzanne Clarke, a parent who lives near the railroad tracks in North Portland.
I’ll take questions after everyone has had a chance to speak.