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Metro may order public meetings on coal port dust risks

Planned route of coal barges from Fraser Surrey Docks
Planned route of coal barges from Fraser Surrey Docks' proposed direct transfer coal export terminal to a transhipment point on Texada Island, where coal would be loaded onto ocean-going ships.
— image credit: Fraser Surrey Docks

Metro Vancouver could order its own public meetings into controversial plans to build a new coal export terminal on the Fraser River in Surrey that opponents claim could risk public health.

Senior officials at the regional district confirmed public meetings are possible on the application by the terminal proponent for a Metro air quality permit.

The proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks is being considered by Port Metro Vancouver and coal dust emissions are a major concern of residents near the terminal and along the BNSF train route through White Rock, Surrey and Delta.

Metro environment and parks committee chair Heather Deal said a decision on whether to hold public meetings will depend on the degree of public feedback to initial advertising by Metro of the permitting process.

The meetings would not be full public hearings – as demanded by coal export opponents.

They've criticized the transparency of the port's review process and say the open house format used by Fraser Surrey Docks is designed to quell dissent.

New open houses have been scheduled for the evening of May 23 and afternoon of May 25 at the Sheraton Guildford in Surrey.

The issue was again before the Metro committee Thursday, where climate change activist and UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison said the port's consultations are fundamentally flawed.

"This is a critical moment and a critical decision," she said.

UBC public health professor and preventative medicine specialist Erica Frank cited BNSF railway reports that 500 pounds to several thousand pounds of coal and coal dust escape the typical train car, exposing nearby residents to heavy metals contained in the coal dust.

She said the coating agent used to encrust the coal loads to minimize dust is inadequately tested and can cause a "plywood effect" where the wind can rip large plywood-like sheets off coal train loads.

Fraser Surrey Docks CEO Jeff Scott said her statements are "very misleading."

He said the statistics she cited on escaping coal are from BNSF railway but are out of date, adding dust loss has dropped more than 85 per cent since the adoption of various control methods.

Almost all coal escapes in the U.S. within five miles of the mine, Scott said, and escaping dust is undetectable by the time trains reach the Canadian border.

He said the binding agent is a glue-like substance.

"It's soluble. We think it's safe to add to the coal and it's been added to the coal for several years now – without issue."

Coal has been hauled by rail through Metro Vancouver for decades to a terminal in Deltaport and another in North Vancouver, where an expansion is already approved.

The new Surrey terminal – which would handle four million tonnes per year – would increase Port Metro Vancouver's coal-handling capacity by eight per cent to 54 million tonnes.

It would add one more coal train round trip per day and create 50 jobs – half at the terminal and the rest running barges or reloading coal onto ocean-going ships at Texada Island.

Scott said the planned dust-control system is very safe and reliable.

Unloading of coal trains would be done in an enclosed area at the proposed terminal, and the conveyor belt and barge loading area would also be enclosed.

Barges would be sprayed with water to suppress dust before they sail.

Asked if water could be sprayed onto the coal on barges while in transit, Scott said combination systems have been considered but aren't yet thought necessary.

Barges wouldn't sail when winds exceed 40 kilometres per hour, but Richmond Coun. Harold Steves warned a squall stronger than that can whip up quickly.

There are no plans so far to cover the barges or the rail cars.

That's a concern for the committee's chair.

"There have been studies done," Deal said. "Unless they're covered cars, the coal jostles around and breaks up as it travels and continually emits dust."

A committee resolution opposing increased coal exports in the Fraser River estuary will go to a full vote of the Metro board May 24.

A staff report had recommended the wording express "concern" rather than opposition, but the original resolution is advancing to the board.

Metro has no authority to stop the project. Its jurisdiction is limited to air emissions at the terminal itself, not from trains along the railway or the barge movements down the Fraser River.

An amendment to the resolution asks the port, Transport Canada and Environment Canada to address emission risks not under Metro control.

See below for "discussion guide" issued by Fraser Surrey Docks in advance of the May 23 and 25 open houses.

Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal

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