Physicians As Environmental Activists

Railway in Whatcom County photo by Josh Scholten

My response to a letter sent by 80+ Whatcom County physicians opposed to a proposed new deep water port in our county to ship, among other things, coal to China, with coal trains to run frequently through our local communities.

Dear Colleagues,

as a twenty six year Whatcom County resident, I have mulled whether to add to this discussion.   I must admit that I’m no expert in predicting the potential health hazards of this particular proposal in this particular community at this particular time in its history. What is most needed here is a collective deep breath.   We need to exercise the experience, wisdom and caution demanded of our profession.   I don’t make a decision about a treatment’s effectiveness (or lack thereof) until it is fully investigated and studied.   Similarly, I will not speculate about environmental health hazards without solid data and evidence to back up that opinion.  As the only physician member of the Whatcom County Public Health Advisory Board, I can assure you a formal evaluation of the potential health effects of more frequent coal-bearing trains delivering diesel particulate matter into the environment will be tasked to Whatcom County Health Department Environmental Health staff once (and if) the application for permits ever takes place some time in the future.

I can share my perspective as a 21 year employee of the largest employer in Whatcom County (WWU) and a former 20 year employee of the second largest employer in Whatcom County (PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center).  Both institutions have been forced to make significant budget and staffing cuts due to the lack of tax base from diminishing private industry in our county and state.   Without the presence of thriving businesses supported by citizens like you and me, our public funded institutions will continue to falter, with fewer employees working more hours,  inevitably resulting in diminishing quality of service.

I am a fourth generation northwest Washingtonian, born of fisherman, loggers, and farmers who stewarded land and shorelines in this area since the mid-1800s.  Some would say they adversely impacted the environment by the work they did in order to support their families — catching fish, cutting down trees, and spreading manure for fertilizer.  Some would say any environmental impact by humans is too much.  Coming from my perspective, and living on a farm myself,  I see things differently.  Whatcom County’s bounty is not just its beauty and recreational opportunities.  Its bounty is in the  harvest yielded from the hard work of our hands in its soil and its waterways.

Surely as physicians who care deeply about our patients, our fellow citizens, our environment and our families’ futures, we can work together as discerning community leaders.  Our goal should be to find a balance to attract and support businesses that someday will provide employment opportunities for our children and grandchildren yet still respect and preserve the natural beauty of our county for generations to come.  Whether this is one of those opportunities has yet to be seen.

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