Health impacts a new hurdle for project approvals

by: PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - New health assessments could affect the way local developments, like those on Hayden Island, were completed. Planners must now take the health of people in the area into account.Before a shovel of dirt was moved for the Port of Portland’s marine terminal project on west Hayden Island, the port commissioned dozens of studies.

Consultants reported how the proposed development might affect migrating fish, jobs, traffic and wildlife habitat. 

But until this fall, nobody studied how the terminals and resulting rail and truck traffic might affect nearby residents’ health. A new draft health report highlighted a potential rise in cancer cases among nearby residents due to diesel emissions. 

“That’s crazy,” says Tom Dana, who owns one of 440 mobile homes near the proposed marine terminals. Local air toxins are already 20 times the state benchmark for cancer prevention, Dana notes.

It’s the kind of data that’s been lacking in traditional environmental reviews, prompting a growing trend in Oregon to require project reviews to take human health into account.

They’re called health impact assessments, modeled after environmental impact assessments required since 1970 on major federally funded projects.

“Understanding the implications on local human populations is too often ignored in projects,” says Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland conservation director. “You’d think that would have been the first thing we put in place.”

Health assessments are still evolving, but they could help decide how — or one day even if — major projects get built or government policies get enacted.  

Health impact assessments were born in the 1980s in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and arrived in the U.S. in 1999 when San Francisco completed the first one here. Oregon got into the act in 2008.

Twenty health impact assessments have since been started or completed in Oregon, more than any other state besides California, and one out of every nine nationally. 

“It’s really emerging as a core best public health practice in Oregon,” says Gary Oxman, Multnomah County health officer.

Health assessments often address projects dear to Oregon environmentalists, such as the health effects from wind turbines and whether wood chips should be burned in school boilers. 

Health assessments don’t have the legal weight of environmental impact statements, but they’re gaining in stature.

Public health experts increasingly see connections between chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes and the ways we design and build our car-centric communities, Oxman says.

Emerging standards 

Health impact assessments might evaluate policies, programs, projects or laws. Common topics are developments, transportation, housing, food, natural resources and energy.

Assessments are voluntary, but not done unless they’ll be taken seriously by policy-makers, says Betsy Clapp, a research analyst who conducts assessments for Multnomah County Health Department.

National standards are emerging for conducting the assessments. Researchers seek input from stakeholders on all sides and take pains to evaluate how projects will affect minorities or low-income people — so-called environmental justice concerns. Analysts document health benefits as well as factors that mar human health.

The draft west Hayden Island report notes the health benefits of adding hiking trails and family-wage terminal jobs that provide health insurance.

Health assessments suggest ways to reduce or prevent negative impacts. A report on a proposed senior housing complex next to a freeway in Oakland, Calif., resulted in design changes and air filtration systems that minimized residents’ exposure to air pollutants.

Advocates say health assessments differ from consultants’ reports commissioned by developers, which can be slanted to fit the desired outcome. 

“Professional and methodological standards for a health impact assessment do not permit such bending,” says Moriah McSharry McGrath, another Multnomah County researcher who conducts health assessments.

Practitioners say their work is grounded in science and designed to hold up under peer review. Reports also tend to be done by government agencies and nonprofits, not for-profit companies. Local assessments have been done by Multnomah County and nonprofits Upstream Public Health and Oregon Public Health Institute.

Still obscure

David Kotansky, incoming president of Oregon’s leading commercial real estate trade group, known by its acronym NAIOP, hadn’t heard of health impact assessments. Steve Janik, a prominent Portland land-use attorney who often represents developers, says he hasn’t come across any health impact assessments in his cases, though he’s concerned they could be ambiguous and subjective and thus “very problematic” for clients. 

Jeff Kropf, a conservative talk-show host and former Republican state lawmaker, recently singled out the Oregon Health Authority’s $95,000 health impact assessment on wind energy as an example of wasteful government spending.

“They’re a waste of money, because they produce no real results that help Oregonians,” Kropf says.

The 134-page draft report focused on the potential for wind turbines to cause epileptic seizures, he says, even though turbines are sited far from where people congregate.

Public health experts say health assessments provide insights neglected by traditional environmental reviews.

The draft environmental impact assessment of the Columbia River Crossing freeway and bridge project found that it will reduce traffic crashes. A separate health impact assessment pointed out that crashes will cause more fatalities unless traffic speeds are limited.

The state’s draft assessment on wind energy dispels any fears about epileptic seizures. However, researchers cautioned farmers who might be asked to waive state noise limits as a condition for leasing their property for turbines.

“A small number of epidemiological studies have linked wind turbine noise to increased annoyance, feelings of stress and irritation, sleep disturbance, and decreased quality of life,” the report notes. Such conditions can cause high blood pressure.

A health assessment of Multnomah County’s Sellwood Bridge replacement project recommended ways to reduce diesel fumes during construction.

The report on school biomass boilers convinced the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to amend its rules.

One health assessment helped convince Benton County to end a ban on accessory dwelling units in rural areas, enabling farmers to build small units to house family members or farmworkers.

Kropf warns that health impact assessments will eventually become new mandates.

“It’s going to stop growth,” he says.

He may be right about the mandates. The World Bank, Alaska and Massachusetts have started requiring health assessments for certain projects.

Supporters see health assessments as a sign of progress. They can wind up saving government money, especially when one considers the mounting costs of chronic disease, says Eric Engstrom, principal planner for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

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