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.

Train to Kigoma–1975


view of Kigoma, Tanzania on


A steam locomotive and passenger cars
Left over from British colonial days
Crosses central Africa daily;
Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma
From Indian Ocean to western shore of Lake Tanganyika
Carrying hundreds of Tanzanians
And four white Americans.

We depart on time, four hours late, whistle blowing,
A party atmosphere in third class.
Rows of benches with families
Spreading cloths, to sit together
Swapping meals and Swahili wisdom,
Singing and clapping
In celebration of easy mobility.

Seated on the outdoor platform
Between cars, I feel the humid air
Lighten and cool in the breeze
As the train makes its way through the plains;
Flat topped trees scattered in silhouette,
Dust clouds camouflage herds of wildebeest
Giraffe move slow motion, stirred to run.

Ujamaa villagers walk alongside the tracks
Women carrying heavy bundles balanced
With perfection upon their heads,
Babies wrapped in slings on their backs.
Men hoe in meager corn rows, stop to
Look up longingly at the passing train.
Children wave and laugh and run alongside.

Stops may be a few metal huts
A smelly latrine hole in the ground
Or a modern station with platform
Waiting room and parking lot.
Dodoma–growing and ambitious
Tabora–vestiges of British rule
Still linger, clinging to the land.

Moving onward to reach Kigoma
A sleepy village on a hillside
Overlooking the world’s deepest lake
Of shining cichlids and snapping crocodiles,
Miracle sunsets, then shimmering fisherman boat lights,
Open markets and cattle herded
Through red dirt main street.

I breathe deeply of Africa
Hearing chiming birdsong of  liquid notes
The smells pungent and moist
Of chimpanzee musk, their tolerant gaze
As Americans stare, dazed, dazzled
At the spectacle of teeming life
In the multi-layered jungle.

It is a garden such as this
Where man began
It is plains such as this
Where man,  nomadic,  trudged, weary
It is land such as this
That blesses and curses,
Reclaiming always what has been taken away.


Kigoma sunset found at…/Tanzania/blog-26128.html