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Port Metro Vancouver in Vancouver, B.C., is calling on the Fraser Surrey Docks to assess the health effects of a coal project.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Port Metro Vancouver says it will require Fraser Surrey Docks to review the human health effects of a proposed coal project after a storm of public concern.

At a news conference Thursday, port officials said it ordered the environmental impact assessment after members of the public and others – including health and government officials – voiced concerns about coal dust and other potential impacts of the $15-million facility. "We've heard a lot around this proposal," James Crandles, director of planning and development with the port, told reporters at port headquarters. "The key themes around what we've heard relate to the health impacts of coal dust, train traffic noise, environmental impacts and climate change."

Up to now, the project – the Fraser Surrey Docks Direct Transfer Coal Facility – has been subject to a port-driven project review that looked at factors including fish and wildlife habitat and soil and water quality. The project did not meet requirements that would trigger an environmental review under provincial or federal legislation. But the project came under intense scrutiny, partly because it involved shipping thermal coal – used in producing electricity – from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. Thermal coal is considered a major contributor to climate change.

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"This announcement appears to be an attempt to put a lid on growing public opposition to expanded coal exports," Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC), said in a statement. "There were high expectations that the Port would agree to a comprehensive, region wide study of the health impacts of coal exports. Instead we have a very brief study overseen by the coal export proponent, without any transparency or public input."

Powder River producers have been looking for new customers and markets for their coal as coal-fired plants have been shutting down in the United States, decreasing demand.

Most of B.C.'s coal exports, about 70 per cent, are metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel. Under the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal, coal would be shipped by rail from the U.S. to Fraser Surrey Docks, where it would be transferred to barges.

Barges would then take the coal to Texada Island, where it would be loaded on to ocean-going vessels. Plans call for shipping two million tonnes a year and then build up to four million tonnes a year. Last year, the port shipped nearly 33 million tonnes of coal through other export facilities. Along with the new environmental assessment, the port has required several additional mitigation measures, including elimination of on-site stockpiling and measures to control coal dust while it is being shipped by rail.

Fraser Surrey Docks said it was accepting the port's directions "voluntarily" and that it expects the study would be complete by the end of the month.

"While we believed the coal dust mitigation measures we have planned were sufficient, we recognize the need for our neighbours and others to be reassured that every effort is being undertaken to ensure a safe project," Jeff Scott, chief executive officer at Fraser Surrey Docks, said on a conference call after Port Metro Vancouver's announcement.

He said the review will look at a variety of potential health impacts.

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