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Kevin Washbrook.

ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PARKINS/The Globe and Mail

For decades, coal was shipped by the millions of tonnes from the Lower Mainland without it drawing much attention.

If people noticed the massive Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank, it was likely in passing as they drove to catch a ferry at Tsawwassen.

Coal shipments from Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver were similarly low-key, part of routine operations at a terminal that has been handling potash, coal and vegetable oil since 1970.

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That is no longer the case, due in large part to Kevin Washbrook.

As a director of a Vancouver-based group called Voters Taking Action On Climate Change, Mr. Washbrook has helped push coal on to the public agenda by raising awareness of coal exports from B.C. and championing a fight against increased volumes that would result from proposed port-expansion projects.

Mr. Washbrook and some like-minded friends and neighbours formed VTACC in 2006, largely out of frustration.

"I had been giving money for years to big [non-governmental organizations] who were purportedly dealing with the issue of climate change," Mr. Washbrook says, adding that he became disillusioned when such groups focused on other issues instead.

"I just got to the point where I though, 'these groups aren't doing anything.' They're at the table, they're happily taking people's money to support their work and they were not getting anywhere. We all realized, why can't educated people in Canada do this stuff themselves – why aren't we actually doing stuff?"

Mr. Washbrook and others got together to do just that. Initially, they focused on lobbying for a carbon tax in B.C., using social media and community events to promote their message. In recent years, they have focused on coal exports.

Cheap and plentiful, coal is used around the world to produce electricity and to make steel for industry. But it contains the most carbon of any fossil fuel and, compared with other fossil fuels generating the same amount of energy, results in more climate-warming greenhouse gases. Worldwide, coal supplies 26.6 per cent of energy use and is responsible for 43.1 per cent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

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Most of B.C.'s coal exports are metallurgical, or steel-making, coal. But there is a push to export thermal coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin through B.C.

Mr. Washbrook, who has a master's degree in resource and environmental management from Simon Fraser University, has pushed the easy-to-grasp message that proposed expansion projects would make Vancouver the biggest coal-export terminal in North America.

Those projects include an already-approved expansion at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver that will boost its capacity from 12.5 to 18.5 million tonnes a year.

Another expansion proposal, at Fraser Surrey Docks, is under review. In that project, Fraser Surrey Docks – which does not currently ship coal – would build a coal transfer facility to handle up to four million tonnes of coal per year.

Through VTACC, Mr. Washbrook has pushed to make under-the-radar coal exports as important an environmental issue as pipelines.

The group's efforts have helped make coal exports a hot topic, with local governments, health officials and industry groups all wading in to the fray.

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So far, VTACC has not registered as a non-profit organization. Directors serve as volunteers, there is no official membership list and strategy tends to be developed quickly, allowing the group to hone in on issues most likely to generate public concern.

"We create opportunities for the public to express concerns that they already have. And we try to connect the dots between the things like coal exports and the urgent need to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions – because those conversations never seem to connect unless someone is out there waving their arms."

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