The true costs of the CSX rail plan [Commentary]

Health impact is too frequently ignored when considering heavy industry's costs

September 17, 2014|By Rebecca Ruggles

The shelving of a plan to build a new CSX rail facility in the West Baltimore residential neighborhood of Morrell Park was decried recently as a setback for regional job growth and a sign of failed leadership by CSX. But articles in The Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal omitted mention of the successful leadership of health advocates and community members who insisted that specific health consequences of the planned facility be addressed.

Environmental health advocates share the general desire for the Port of Baltimore to grow and compete effectively with other East Coast ports for Panama Canal container business. We know that poverty and economic instability are great drivers of poor health status, and for us, the environment encompasses regional prosperity as well as clean water, air and soil.

None of the business leaders, politicians or the economic analysts quoted by The Sun mention the health costs of locating a new industrial facility near a residential neighborhood. No one put a price tag on the proposed increase in air pollution, its health effects and the resulting loss in productivity.

Leadership on those issues, instead, came from the Morrell Park community and the organization that conducted a health impact assessment (HIA) of the CSX plan. Among the issues that were raised in the HIA conducted by the National Center for Health Housing and its partners were significant risks of poorer local air quality. That would carry both health and economic consequences for the Baltimore region, where we already have high rates of asthma and significantly worse air quality than the rest of the state.

The likely reasons the threatened health costs and burdens of the CSX plan were not considered by area leaders and media are two-fold. First, we often fail to measure the true costs and benefits of our economic development plans as a society and in our government structures. We overestimate jobs and underestimate or ignore health costs. This needs to change.

The Morrell Park HIA quantified the excess deaths that would result from the CSX plan. Those deaths would be tragic because they would be preventable and costly because they would likely occur as a result of a long period of chronic disease and lost productivity.

The second reason that Morrell Park had to fight to have their concerns identified and addressed is that we allow some communities and people (primarily based on income status, but often also linked to race and ethnicity) to bear a higher burden of pollution. It is no secret that residential areas near heavy industry are those with less political clout by virtue of being less wealthy. With all the talk of lost future jobs, no one mentioned that the actual new permanent jobs this project would have generated (estimated at 276 by Towson University) would not have gone to community residents.

Plans for the growth of the Port of Baltimore can and should include community health protections and benefits from the start. Health impact assessment is a tool for determining which expansion plans will be most likely to promote a healthy workforce and achieve cleaner air for the metropolitan area. Baltimore City's Health Department has experience conducting HIAs, as do many industries.

James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, says that the port's role is to create jobs and drive the economy. The port has been a good neighbor to many of its surrounding communities. Conducting health impact assessments as part of the port's expansion plans would be a mark of leadership and in the best interests of the port and the region's economy. We call on the port and its partners to include the health costs and benefits to neighboring communities in its assessment of plans for expansion, and to help build a healthy economy that works for all.

Rebecca Ruggles is director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, a non-governmental organization focused on promoting healthy environments in Maryland. She can be reached at rebeccalruggles@gmail.com.


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