Metro Vancouver's port authority says it is taking the proper steps to ensure public safety in the Lower Mainland, as environmental groups accuse it of abandoning its responsibility by allowing a company to hold public consultations on a coal port project.
The accusations against Port Metro Vancouver come at time of heightened sensitivity to natural resource development in British Columbia, and highlight competing visions for how projects should be reviewed.
The Fraser Surrey Docks coal port project, if approved by the authority, could see coal exports in B.C. jump by nearly eight million tonnes a year. Coal – coming primarily from the northern United States – would be unloaded directly from rail cars onto receiving pits and transferred directly onto barges. The barges would carry the coal to Texada Island in the Straight of Georgia, where it would be stored at an existing storage yard and then transferred to deep-sea vessels for export to Asia.
Fraser Surrey Docks is holding two consultations, on Thursday evening and another on Saturday.
"The company that wants to build the coal port has a financial interest in the outcome," Kevin Washbrook, a spokesman for Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said at a rally Thursday afternoon in front of Port Metro Vancouver headquarters. "We're here to say that the process is fundamentally flawed. The port authority is the public decision maker, the public regulator, and this is an abdication of their responsibility."
Joining Mr. Washbrook were representatives from the Wilderness Committee and the Dogwood Initiative, which have both expressed opposition to the project.
New coal ports, environmental groups argue, would result in an increase in coal dust in the Lower Mainland, dirtying the air and contaminating crops and drinking water. Exposure to coal dust, they say, is linked to decreased lung capacity, increased childhood bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, emphysema and heart disease.
Neptune Terminals, in North Vancouver, recently received permits for a $200-million expansion, and Westshore Terminals, Canada's busiest coal dock, has spent $110-million to increase its capacity to 33 million tonnes a year from 23 million.
Mr. Washbrook said Port Metro Vancouver must hold public consultations independent of the those being held by companies.
According to Port Metro Vancouver, having a company run public consultations is simply standard procedure, and the authority establishes the requirements the company must meet as well as the implementation of those requirements. "It's not as if everything is left up to the proponent," said Duncan Wilson, Port Metro Vancouver's vice-president of corporate social responsibility.
Mr. Wilson said the authority requires companies to provide advance notification to the public on any project, and hold open houses to allow companies to explain how they are mitigating any impacts that have been identified. Companies must commission studies on various issues, from land use to health impacts.
"The reporting of this to the public and the public feedback from that is folded into our review process," he said. "It's very similar if you were going through the Canadian environmental assessment process on a project. The Government of Canada doesn't do the studies themselves, they require you do them and their staff reviews them."
Mr. Wilson said the authority has received nearly 1,000 letters from the public in the past year expressing concerns about coal exports, all of which will be included in the review process as well. He added that the project has been referred to health authorities and "if there is a desire to do a health impact assessment, that is something they'll [health authorities] be asking for."
"Our decision is going to be based on facts, not opinion," he said. "We won't approve the project if local issues cannot be addressed."
But Mr. Wilson said that, because coal is not a regulated commodity, there are no restrictions on its trade or movement. "So if there is a larger discussion of its effects on climate change, that's a conversation beyond the port's permit process."