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May 31, 2020

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Physicians call for halt to natural gas fracking projects

Proposed Kalama plant among those cited

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:

Two physicians groups have issued a 145-page report calling for an immediate halt to projects involving hydraulically fracked natural gas in the Northwest.

“Fracked Gas: A Threat to Healthy Communities” identifies six major projects, including a proposed $2 billion plant at the Port of Kalama to convert natural gas into methanol for export to Asia.

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique for extracting oil or gas from rock by injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand or gravel, and chemicals.

Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington and Oregon released their report Wednesday. The report comes as the Port of Vancouver weighs adopting a policy barring the port from pursuing new bulk crude oil or coal terminals.

Environmentalists advocating action to combat climate change have urged the port to expand that draft policy to encompass natural gas. Business organizations, including the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, have cautioned against adopting policies that could have “unintended consequences.”

The report opposes any expansion of facilities to transport, store, process or export fracked gas in the Northwest.

Dr. Patricia Kullberg, who spent 20 years as medical director of the Multnomah County Health Department in Oregon, is one of the report’s nine authors. Another author, Theodora Tsongas, is an environmental health scientist who has testified at Port of Vancouver commissioners’ meetings about potential negative effects of fossil fuel facilities.

In a phone briefing, Kullberg said about two-thirds of the natural gas coming into Oregon is fracked and has been mixed with conventionally drilled natural gas.

“The gas industry would like very much to turn the Pacific Northwest into a hub for processing, refining, liquefying and exporting natural gas,” Kullberg said.

“We hear a lot about the potential economic benefits of these facilities, but we hear very little about the economic cost,” she said, mentioning medical bills, environmental degradation and negative effects to fisheries, tourism and recreation.

Kullberg said the six projects are proposed to be built in troubled communities, including Kalama, Tacoma and Coos Bay, Ore.

“These are some of the most distressed, economically and socially distressed, communities in the Pacific Northwest, with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and high school dropout(s),” she said. “The residents of these communities are sicker and die younger than in other communities. Because of these conditions, they are the most susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Dr. Mark Vossler, chairman of the cardiology department at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland and president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, said it might be too strong to say the natural gas industry is targeting economically distressed areas.

“There are other ways to create jobs in low-income communities,” Vossler said. “You don’t have to create jobs that are harmful to those communities.

“Being employed leads to better health outcomes; there’s no question about that,” he added. “But we have to call out the trade-offs, the tremendous sacrifices that are made to the health of these communities by putting dirty energy infrastructure near their homes.”

In May, Gov. Jay Inslee reversed his previous position to oppose both the Kalama project and a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma. Inslee came out against both projects after signing a bill banning hydraulic fracking for oil and natural gas in the state.

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