Take it from a nurse: Tacoma can’t gamble with air quality, public health

Sylvia Wood is a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife working in Tacoma.
Sylvia Wood is a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife working in Tacoma. Courtesy photo

I am a certified nurse midwife and have cared for women and infants for more than 40 years.

After moving to Washington following my service in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, I became a nurse-educator and a provider at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Tacoma, where I have seen patients for nearly 25 years.

As a healthcare provider and advocate for my patients, I know that a clean environment is a critical component of human health.

Over the next few weeks, Tacoma City Council will decide whether to renew one of our most important local environmental protections: the Tideflats Interim Regulations.

These rules protect Tacomans from new fossil-fuel development while we develop a long-term vision for the Tideflats. But we can’t gamble with our health while we wait for this plan to be complete.

The City must renew and strengthen the interim regulations and put Tacomans’ health first.

The science is clear: Air pollution from fossil-fuel development negatively impacts the health of infants, pregnant mothers and us all.

Pollutants emitted from processing and refining of oil and gas products include toxic air contaminants and carcinogens.

These include particulate matter, which can lodge deep into lungs and contribute to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and volatile organic compounds that disproportionately harm children and infants. Closing fossil-fuel plants has also been shown to reduce preterm births.

Tacoma is already home to major fossil-fuel facilities, including US Oil and Targa Sound Terminal. Puget Sound Energy is constructing a liquefied natural gas plant on the Tideflats despite opposition from the Puyallup Tribe and a missing permit from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Pierce County residents and communities of color in particular suffer higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than the state average. Two of Tacoma’s hospitals are within three miles of these industries.

That’s why I joined with 75 physicians, nurses, nurse-practitioners, nursing students and nursing faculty who either live or work in Tacoma to sign a letter to City Council members, urging their support for these regulations.

As I shared this letter with colleagues with whom I work, I was pleased, but not surprised, by how willing they were to sign in support. As healthcare providers we know that our patients’ health is negatively impacted by the long-term effects of local pollution.

People with lower incomes and communities of color are often the hardest hit. The recent industrial fire on the Tideflats reminded us that we can’t forget the hundreds of people detained at the Northwest Detention Center who have no escape from poor air quality.

Healthcare professionals are particularly concerned about the expansion of existing fossil-fuel facilities in Tacoma. The interim regulations should be strengthened to limit incremental expansion until the city has a clear vision and plan for the Tideflats.

Tacoma has already accepted too much risk and pollution.

The City Council will vote on whether to renew and strengthen these regulations on Nov. 6. A public hearing was held on Oct. 23 and there will be further discussion at the council meeting on Oct. 30.

Will the city continue its legacy of health-harming pollution with limited community input? Or will our leaders chart a new course by renewing and strengthening these interim regulations?

We hope the city chooses public health.

Sylvia Wood is a registered nurse, certified nurse midwife at St. Joseph Medical Center and nursing faculty emeritus at Pacific Lutheran University. She’s also an advocate with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, part of Protect Tacoma's Tideflats Coalition.