Metro directors oppose new Surrey coal terminal over dust hazard

Metro Vancouver officials passed a number of coal-related resolutions today, including that the MV board write to Port Metro Vancouver to express opposition to shipments from ports other than that at Roberts Bank. - File photo
Metro Vancouver officials passed a number of coal-related resolutions today, including that the MV board write to Port Metro Vancouver to express opposition to shipments from ports other than that at Roberts Bank.
— image credit: File photo

A proposal to build a new coal export terminal on the Fraser River in Surrey is being opposed by Metro Vancouver directors who cite potential risks to the local environment and the health of residents from coal dust.

The position was taken in a 6-5 split vote of Metro's environment and parks committee Thursday and still has to go to a full board vote at the end of the month.

Metro has no power to block the planned export terminal proposed by Fraser Surrey Docks and now being considered for approval by Port Metro Vancouver.

While Metro is also asking the port for more information on the proposal and its potential impacts, Richmond Coun. Harold Steves argued a decision could be imminent and Metro can't wait for answers before stating its opposition.

"The port is the sole judge, jury and executioner and they're not consulting with anybody," he said. "The decision will be made by the time we get a response."

Some directors said it looked bad to oppose the new terminal while seeking more details.

The motion doesn't oppose coal exports altogether – just new terminals in the Fraser River estuary.

Coal has long been exported through Westshore Terminals at Deltaport.

And the port has just approved a capacity expansion at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver that will allow more exports of B.C-mined metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.

The new terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks would be able to export four million tonnes of thermal coal a year initially, with potential to double that later.

Coal trains would come to the new terminal from Wyoming through White Rock, South Surrey and Delta.

Combined with Neptune's expansion, the projects could boost coal exports through Metro by about 35 per cent, from 40 to 54 million tonnes.

They've become a major new target for climate change activists who want to block any outlet for U.S. coal to Asia.

But regional district directors focused not on the climate change aspect of coal but the danger to the local environment from more coal dust escaping from trains or barges – an area over which Metro has some power as regional air quality regulator.

Besides fine particulate that could harm human health in densely populated neighbourhoods near the BNSF rail line, coal dust could pose ecological risks, Vancouver Coun. and committee chair Heather Deal said.

Metro Vancouver has no authority over coal trains on the rail line.

But the terminals themselves require Metro air quality permits and officials say the regional district may be able to insist that arriving rail cars have covers over their loads to minimize dust escape.

"I think it's worth exploring," Metro Vancouver air quality division manager Roger Quan said.

Permit conditions would need to be grounded in protecting air quality, not simply used as a tool to block shipments.

It's unclear whether Metro could also slap similar rules on coal barges leaving the terminals for the transhipment point at Texada Island, where coal will be reloaded to ocean-going ships.

Quan said while the Neptune decision happened very fast it did not appear a decision on Fraser Surrey Docks was imminent as Port Metro Vancouver seems to be taking a "more measured approach."

Several directors were either uncomfortable with rushing to judgement or argued local jobs and the economic boost from coal exports must be carefully weighed.

"I think we're a little premature to just say no," Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele said.

"I would hate to see those jobs disappear to another region," North Vancouver District Coun. Mike Little said. "If we don't ship it someone will."

The directors who voted against the opposition motion were Little, Steele, Langley Township Coun. Bob Long, Burnaby Coun. Sav Dhaliwal and Langley City Coun. Gayle Martin.

Some local councils, including White Rock, New Westminster and Vancouver, have passed motions expressing concern over growing coal exports and the port's process for approval.

Metro is also backing a request from Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health authorities to be consulted about the projects.


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