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The Fraser Surrey Docks, shown here, are under the jurisdiction of Port Metro Vancouver, which will decide whether or not to approve a proposal to expand coal exports to four million tonnes annually.

Under attack for allowing increased coal shipments, the Port of Metro Vancouver took the unusual step on Tuesday of opening its annual general meeting to questions from the public.

And not surprisingly, most of the questions came from people who were concerned about growing coal exports on the West Coast and the implications for climate change.

No sooner was the public microphone turned on in the meeting at the Vancouver Convention Centre than people were lined up 20-deep. The public dialogue started with two women in funny hats who sang a ditty.

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"Port authority what are you thinking?" crooned the women, who identified themselves as Barb and Barb. "What happens if global warming catches up and lowers the boom?"

More specific in their questions were a couple of individuals who wanted to know why Port Metro Vancouver was not holding public hearings into proposals to expand coal export facilities at Fraser Surrey Docks and Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver.

Robin Silvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, said public hearings are not planned because that is not the mandate of the harbour authority, which is responsible for facilitating trade through the port, rather than the type of commodity that is shipped or larger environmental issues.

"There is no trigger for a public hearing," Mr. Silvester said.

He had a similar response to those who asked why the port authority was not addressing the issue of climate change in its sustainability planning.

"They are not questions that are in the scope of what the port does," said Mr. Silvester, adding that the board has no control over what is shipped through Vancouver's harbour.

He said people who want to know why Canada is shipping increased amounts of coal need to address their concerns to the federal government.

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Fred Bass, a physician and former Vancouver city councillor, told port officials that as a society "we are really headed in the wrong direction" by burning more coal.

"I did a lot of work in the area of tobacco . . . and to tell you the truth, tobacco pales in comparison to what we're facing [with environmental degradation]," he said.

But Mr. Silvester told Dr. Bass he was raising "issues that I don't have the mandate to answer."

A few of Mr. Silvester's responses met groans of protest.

Michael Rosser told port officials they were misguided if they think there is such a thing as "sustainable growth," and called on them to take a stand against increased coal shipments.

Mr. Rosser said climate change is a global problem, but Vancouver is playing a key role.

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"It's very likely the carbon that puts us over the top will go through this port," he said. "Somebody has got to stand up and say we're not going to do this any more."

But port officials said that is not their job, and put the emphasis in their presentations on economic growth, releasing a study that showed business is booming at the harbour.

According to an economic impact study done by InterVISTAS Consulting, Port Metro Vancouver handled more than $172-billion worth of cargo last year.

The study said the port supported nearly 99,000 jobs across Canada, including 38,200 direct jobs in B.C.

Mr. Silvester said the numbers show Port Metro Vancouver is Canada's largest and most diversified port and the largest export harbour in North America.

But among the goods shipped are more than 32 million metric tonnes of coal – and as that number increases, it is likely the criticisms will too.

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