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A view of a container and bulk terminal on the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland.

Handout/Fraser Surrey Docks LP

In 2013, community groups pushed a proposed coal-export facility into the spotlight by raising questions about its environmental impact and the regulatory process through which it was to be reviewed.

As the year drew to a close, the activists were gearing up for a fresh offensive: In 2014, they will try to push the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks direct-transfer coal facility on to the provincial government's agenda.

Under the proposal, coal would be shipped in rail cars from the United States on the BNSF Railway to the terminal, loaded on to barges that would be towed by tugs to Texada Island and then transferred to a deep-sea vessel for oceangoing exports.

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"Come January, we'll start to focus pressure on the province," Kevin Washbrook, a spokesman for the group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said in a recent e-mail.

"They [the provincial government] have so far been silent on this, even though they have complete power to spike the Texada end of this proposal by refusing a permit to expand the coal-handling facilities there. The port [Port Metro Vancouver] has no say in that decision. No Texada terminal, no barging coal from Surrey, and the project is dead."

The $15-million project to which Mr. Washbrook refers – and that he and others would like to derail – would allow Fraser Surrey Docks to handle up to four million tons of coal annually at its riverside operations. Currently, Fraser Surrey Docks handles containers and other cargo including forest products, but does not ship any coal.

In terms of volume, the Fraser Surrey Docks facility is relatively small. The initial plan calls for four million tons a year.

Further expansion to a potential capacity of up to eight million tons a year would require a new review.

By contrast, Westshore Terminals – Canada's biggest export coal facility, at Roberts Bank – ships about 27 million tons a year.

Neptune Terminals, in North Vancouver, obtained approval in 2013 for upgrades that will more than double its coal-handling capacity from 8.5 million to 18.5 million tons a year.

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But the Fraser Surrey Docks project garnered the most attention, primarily because it involved shipping U.S. thermal coal – used in energy production – from a facility that had not previously handled the commodity.

Most of the coal exported from B.C. is metallurgical, or steel-making. In the U.S., tighter regulations on coal-fired energy plants – part of the so-called 'war on coal' – has resulted in U.S. thermal-coal producers looking for alternative markets for their product, including Asia. One way to get it there is through B.C.

Critics zeroed in on potential health impacts of coal dust, noise and other aspects of the Fraser Surrey Docks. They also objected to the regulatory process, which did not include public hearings.

After considerable public outcry, Port Metro Vancouver – which is reviewing the project – in September ordered Fraser Surrey Docks to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment. That report, released in November, concluded the project was unlikely to result in adverse effects on human health or the environment.

Public-health officers for the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health authorities said the study did not meet the requirements of a health assessment and did little to allay their concerns about public health.

A public comment period on that report closed on Dec. 17 after thousands of mostly negative comments were received. Port Metro Vancouver's review of the project is ongoing.

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Amid the Fraser Surrey Docks controversy, industry voices have cited the decades-long track record of coal exports in B.C. and the importance of coal jobs and revenue to the provincial and national economy.

On the national mineral production scene, coal is second only to potash, which accounted for $7-billion worth of production last year compared with $6.4-billion for coal.

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report released in 2013, the coal industry in B.C. generated an estimated $3.2-billion in provincial GDP and approximately $715.2-million in tax revenue for all levels of government in 2011.

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