Communities are right to question the health impact of development decisions

Fells Point residents are raising questions about chromium contamination at Harbor Point, and Morrell Park residents are concerned about the impact of a proposed CSX rail facility on their neighborhood. In Western Maryland, economic and health impact studies of potential shale gas drilling are underway, and students at Benjamin Franklin High School in South Baltimore are circulating a petition asking Gov. Martin O'Malley to halt construction of a new incinerator a mile from their school in an already heavily industrialized neighborhood.

Communities across the state are turning a skeptical eye toward land use decisions that disregard environmental, social and health considerations. In these communities, people already experience a significant burden from past industrial development. For example, just four census tracts in South Baltimore beat out 90 percent of all other U.S. census tracts for the highest risk of respiratory disease, and they are in the 80th percentile for cancer risk. The area has some of the worst air quality in the nation.


Much is made of the economic benefits of development, and of course, industry and real estate developers have resources and motives for making rosy projections about the jobs and other economic activity that their proposals will bring. But only rarely is their full impact on the community analyzed or addressed.

Analyses performed by developers often omit the health impacts of such projects. Yet academic research confirms what communities know: Land use decisions can dramatically affect community health and increase the true costs of development. When industrial pollution is involved, these costs include disease, injury, lost productivity and premature death.

We must also consider who pays the price. Pennsylvania's gas boom has shown that there are winners and losers, both economically and in terms of health. The residents of Curtis Bay are paying the price for all of us who benefit from the industries located there in the form of higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness,.

Health impact assessments, which are being used in to of these cases, are a tool to systematically assess the effects of development decisions on health. The National Center for Healthy Housing conducted an assessment of the CSX rail facility proposed for Morrell Park and found that the community would bear the brunt of truck traffic, air pollution, noise and property value loss but would benefit from few, if any, new jobs. This despite Morrell Park having one of the highest unemployment rates in the city. Community members have used the assessment to pose tough questions to CSX and to persuade local politicians to withdraw their support.

In Western Maryland, the University of Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health recently asked citizens of Garrett and Allegany counties what health concerns should be assessed with regard to proposed shale gas drilling. The institute is using parts of the assessment to organize its study, which will be just one part of an overall assessment of whether fracking should be allowed in Western Maryland.

However, because of funding constraints neither the institute study nor Towson University's economic study of proposed fracking will include a forecast of the health costs of shale drilling. This will leave out a critical piece of the picture which Western Marylanders deserve to know.

The reasons for looking at health impacts and their costs before we drill are well illustrated in nearby Pennsylvania. There, so many health problems have emerged for workers, land-owners and livestock exposed to horizontal hydraulic shale fracturing that a new health center was set up in 2012.

Southwestern Pennsylvania lacked clinicians with expertise to diagnose and treat the emerging health complaints, so a private foundation stepped in to ensure tracking of environmental health problems and adequate treatment. This is the job of the public health system and of local governments; it should be financed by industry, not on the backs of taxpayers or by private foundations.

Struggling communities are lured by the job promises of industry and government is not immune to its siren call. We have allowed communal resources to be privatized for private gain and called it progress. In fact, it has carried a price in the form of people's health.

The costs are borne first by individuals unfairly saddled with serious, avoidable diseases, and second by taxpayers who foot the bill for strapped safety net systems trying to cope with new waves of illness. When communities start asking questions before development occurs, and when politicians listen, we all have a shot at avoiding paying that price.

Rebecca Ruggles

The writer is director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network.