Skip to main content

The Westshore coal Terminal in Delta, B.C. April 23, 2013.JEFF VINNICK/The Globe and Mail

In an attempt to reframe a debate over coal exports that has brought Port Metro Vancouver under intense scrutiny, officials have announced plans to hold more public hearings and to consult with health authorities before making any decisions.

But a leading critic of the projects that would make Vancouver the biggest coal-shipping port in North America says the harbour authority isn't going far enough, and has called for formal public hearings. Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said Tuesday the public wants more than just assurances from officials.

"They are scrambling," he said of Port Metro Vancouver's promise of more consultation. "Unfortunately, open houses are an inadequate response. I think what they need to do is hold hearings where the public can come and testify, where they have expert witnesses speaking to the decision makers."

And Mr. Washbrook promised to turn up the heat on Port Metro Vancouver over coal. "Our real focus right now is to make this an issue in the provincial election," he said. "We're not opposed to the port. … We live in a thriving port region and that's a good thing. What we're concerned about is getting us involved in the export of a dirty product that nobody else wants to handle."

His reaction came after Port Metro Vancouver directors held a rare news conference to defend their handling of coal proposals and to assure British Columbians that the federally appointed body is looking out for the public interest.

"We've heard comments through e-mails and the media that the port has done very little or no public engagement with regards to these projects. And that is … completely untrue," said Duncan Wilson, vice-president of corporate responsibility for Port Metro Vancouver. "We've done a tremendous amount of public engagement … the port in 2012 did more than 600 public meetings and community events … we want to engage with the community."

Mr. Wilson said port officials have been surprised by the strong public opposition to coal projects, and in response will hold two additional open houses in May, where the public can learn more about Fraser Surrey Docks, the project currently under review. He said port officials have also initiated talks with health authorities to discuss any concerns that might arise, including air quality and the impact of coal dust on surrounding communities.

A growing demand in Asia is putting pressure on Port Metro Vancouver to increase coal shipments.

The Fraser Surrey Docks project would see coal exports jump by up to eight million tonnes a year. 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. Wilson said officials for years have been talking about the need to expand export facilities, but Port Metro Vancouver hadn't heard complaints until recently.

"The issues around the coal project and the port expansion have obviously captured a lot of imagination in the last few weeks," he said. "We've been saying for a long time: 'It's coming and we've got to prepare.' And now what we're finding is that all the projects are materializing. And so it's one thing to talk about it, but when you actually start to see shovels in the ground that's when you get the attention."

He said Port Metro Vancouver has a good environmental track record and he promised those high standards will be maintained as the coal projects are reviewed.

"There's no doubt that there is already a lot of coal that is handled in this port and it is handled in an environmentally sustainable way," agreed James Crandles, director of planning and development for Port Metro Vancouver. "So there is no doubt that you can do it."