Your yoga instructor isn’t the only one who wants you to concentrate on your breathing. A new study funded by the Coastal Conservation League suggests the health risks of expanding the port at the old Navy base, a project already under preliminary construction.

Among its key findings are an increased risk of lung cancer, heart attack, and asthma for residents living in close proximity to the port terminal. The largest risk comes from soot formed by diesel-burning ships in the harbor, trucks, and other port machinery.

The League paid $32,000 to Abt Associates to conduct the study, the same firm that compiled similar data for the port of Los Angeles. That port is currently targeting a 50 percent reduction in air pollution over five years. Nancy Vinson, a project director for the League, hopes the South Carolina State Ports Authority will adopt a similar initiative.

“This study really allows us a more precise comparison between the cost of reducing pollution and health care savings,” says Vinson. “It’s sort of like heating your house with two of your windows broken out, but you can’t afford to fix them. It just doesn’t make sense for us to go on paying the high cost of healthcare when it’s preventable and less expensive in the first place.”

The Abt Associates study found the increased cost of healthcare due to the new terminal could range between $2.8 million and $27 million per year, in 2006 dollars. Factors for such a wide spread include truck traffic outside of the port, ships cruising in the harbor, and whether there will be federal requirements for ships to use low-sulfer diesel near shore. The study estimated the current four terminals’ health costs tally to be $54 million, when operating at full capacity. 

It appears that the real debate is over the math. The League data uses an environmental assessment the ports authority made to gain approval for the project. But SPA spokesman Byron Miller questions the data’s use.

Those earlier figures estimated that the new terminal alone could push Charleston’s overall air quality out of federal compliance, to levels over 35 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. Since that report, the SPA conducted an air emissions inventory, which found levels of particulate matter to be significantly reduced from prior levels, down to an average of 11 to 14 micrograms, as opposed to levels in the 20s just a few years ago.

That decline correlates closely to the decline in shipping volume at the port’s terminals, argues Vinson. But Miller contests that the air emissions survey, which included cruising ships and truck traffic in its tally, attributes only 1.2 percent of fine particulate in the tri-county area to the port.

“This is where the study, kind of, on its face, falls flat,” says Miller, adding that the SPA has led the southeast in environmental efforts, including switching to low-sulfur diesel for its on-shore machinery.

Vinson says the League’s study demonstrates that expanding the port will exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease amongst the lower income neighborhoods adjacent to the terminal. Although air quality has improved since the recession began, she’s concerned about the future, especially after the widened Panama Canal brings added ship traffic after 2015.

“It looks to me like we’re going to pay one way or another,” says Vinson. “We’re not attacking the port. We’re saying that we have a health problem and we’d like to prevent as many of these illnesses as we can in a cost effective manner.” —Stratton Lawrence

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