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Metro votes to oppose new coal terminal on Fraser River

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's board has dealt a blow to a proposed new coal export terminal in Surrey, voting 21-4 to oppose the project that has been under steady fire from both climate change activists and concerned neighbours.

The regional district has no real power to block the new coal terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks.

But critics hope the decision puts more pressure on Port Metro Vancouver to delay approving the project pending a health impact assessment demanded by medical health officers.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said it makes no sense for Canada to accept extra risk to handle thermal coal from the U.S. that American port cities are rejecting.

"It is massively controversial," he said. "If we roll over on this we're sending a very bad image to the rest of the world."

The new $15-million terminal would reload U.S. coal from trains to barges and add 25 jobs both at Surrey and on Texada Island, where coal would be transferred again to ocean-going ships.

"I'm not an opponent of the coal industry in Canada," Corrigan said. "But the issue is taking coal from the United States – bad coal, the most difficult coal, the cheapest coal – bringing it into Canada, processing it twice through our ports, taking all of the environmental risks for none of the real benefits, and in the end of it we get 25 jobs."

Corrigan also said the port authority's role as regulator is akin to the "fox guarding the henhouse" because the majority of its board are appointed by port users, namely the terminal operators such as Fraser Surrey Docks.

"Twenty five jobs is nothing compared to the possible environmental impact," added Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve.

The four directors who opposed the motion were Langley Township Coun. Bob Long, Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele, Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew and Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves was among those who argued fossil fuels like coal must be kept in the ground, and warned a stampede is coming by companies to "take that stuff out of the ground and burn it somewhere" before a warming climate halts their use.

Metro's board also passed motions supporting the call for a health impact assessment and requesting more information from Fraser Surrey Docks and North Vancouver's Neptune Terminals, which recently got the green light to expand its coal exports.

The meeting was the closest thing so far to a formal public hearing, which Port Metro Vancouver has refused to hold itself.

More than 40 delegations were heard by Metro over six and a half hours.

Port, coal industry and union reps spoke in favour of the project and repeated assurances that coal dust from the terminal, trains and barges can be suppressed and pose no heatlh risk.

"This dust conversation is being blown way out of proportion," said Mark Gordienko, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester, asked about the call for a health impact assessment, noted Fraser Health's medical health officer said he would shut down the Surrey terminal if health concerns were proven.

Silvester said he concluded from that statement the existing coal shipments that have gone through Metro Vancouver for decades are not a concern or else they would already have been shut down.

Sam Harrison, a Vancouver high school student, urged Metro to "draw the line in the sand" to stop increaasing carbon emissions.

He was one of several speakers addressing the board concerned more coal exports will accelerate climate change, a factor the port says it cannot consider in its decision.

"Someone has to stop us," added SFU health sciences professor Tim Takaro, calling coal "the most fossilized fossil fuel" that represents an "economic dead end."

Fraser Surrey Docks CEO Jeff Scott said the coal-transfer terminal, which would initially handle four million tonnes of coal per year, would be built for a capacity of eight million.

Grant Rice, a Surrey resident living less than two kilometres away, predicted coal exports from Fraser Surrey Docks, once approved, could expand much more, particularly if the Massey Tunnel is replaced with a bridge, allowing larger ships to sail upriver to the terminal.

Fraser Surrey is owned by MacQuarrie Infrastructure Partners, a global firm, and has a long-term lease to the riverside port lands in Surrey.

Other Surrey residents said their home values are lower due to impacts from train whistles, vibration and dust and diesel pollution, as well as cut-off emergency access to neighbourhoods like Crescent Beach.

Panorama Ridge resident Bob Campbell said residents there near the junction of the BNSF and BC Rail lines are constantly washing dust off their property from passing coal trains.

He said it's "galling" that the port can approve the new terminal when U.S. cities are rejecting them.

"We appear to be the path of least resistance and we have to pay the price."

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