Environmental opponents of plans to make Vancouver the largest coal-exporting port in North America have been shaken by the granting of a key development permit.
But they say they are not giving up the fight to stop two projects that would dramatically increase coal shipments from Metro Vancouver, raising questions about the role Canada's greenest city is playing in global climate change.
"It's a big blow … but we're not done. We'll push back," Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, said Thursday.
On Wednesday, Port Metro Vancouver issued a project permit that will allow Neptune Terminals to expand its capacity from 12 million to 18 million metric tonnes of coal annually.
A related proposal, which is still awaiting approval, would permit Fraser Surrey Docks to build a coal-loading plant that would handle 6 million tonnes annually.
Port officials say the decision follows a thorough review process which looked at localized environmental impact but not climate change, because that is a responsibility of the federal government.
Mr. Washbrook said the Neptune Terminals decision suggests that Port Metro Vancouver will also soon approve the Fraser Surrey Docks plan.
"We certainly are waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think the port authority has shown how it's going to play its cards here, and it's not going to take the call from climate leaders and the mayors and the health leaders seriously," he said.
Mr. Washbrook said environmentalists are wondering what action they should take next.
"We've been getting e-mails all day from people … saying what do we do now?" said Mr. Washbrook. "The range of responses are all the way from despondency to 'this means war, where do I sign up for civil disobedience training?' "
He said a course of action will be determined by the groups over the next few weeks.
A number of environmental organizations and several political leaders, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have expressed concern about the projects.
In December, Mr. Robertson wrote to Robin Silvester, the president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, to complain that there hadn't been adequate opportunity for public input.
Will Horter, executive director of Dogwood Initiative, an environmental organization based in Victoria, said he is disappointed that the Neptune Terminals project has been approved.
"More than 600 citizens wrote letters to the port raising concerns about the impacts of coal dust and diesel fumes on their health as well as the millions of tonnes of additional global warming pollution created by these exports," he said in a statement. "While it may seem convenient now to abdicate responsibility for the products being shipped through our ports … I think Port Metro Vancouver will come to regret their cavalier dismissal of people's health, climate and transparency concerns."
In a statement posted on the Port Metro Vancouver website, addressed to Mr. Horter and his supporters, Mr. Silvester said both the Neptune Terminals and Surrey Fraser Docks proposals have been subject to rigorous review.
He said the proponents have consulted with local governments, first nations and the general public. And he dismissed concerns about coal dust, saying port officials have been monitoring air quality since the 1970s.
Mr. Silvester said Port Metro Vancouver is committed to meeting high environmental standards, but "there are matters that are beyond our jurisdiction … [and] We urge you to raise your broader concerns about the export of coal with the Government of Canada."