Cities' rep on port board fights lonely battle
Penny Priddy was never shy of speaking forcefully and publicly when she was an elected politician in the B.C. Legislature, the House of Commons or on Surrey city council.
But these days, the 70-year-old former NDP politician has little to say to when questioned by reporters, even though she has a critical role on behalf of Metro Vancouver.
Priddy is a director on the Port Metro Vancouver board, reappointed in May to a second three-year term by Metro politicians to represent the interests there of the region's member cities.
"I speak very strongly, but I express those opinions at the board table," Priddy told Black Press in a recent interview. "I don't have any difficulty expressing my opinion."
To say the closed-door deliberations of the port authority board are contentious is an understatement.
The board is expected to decide this summer on Fraser Surrey Docks' proposed coal export terminal on the Fraser River. The project, which would bring more coal trains through White Rock and send coal barges down the river, has been opposed by the regional district, several cities and medical health officers, who have warned a much stronger assessment of human health risks is needed.
It's a cause that's united climate change activists with neighbours who fear coal dust and other local impacts.
Unlike Washington State, where elected county councils can veto new coal ports, Port Metro Vancouver is governed by a board of appointees that can approve such projects over all municipal objections.
The directors are almost all named by the federal government on behalf of terminal operators and other port business interests.
That makes Priddy the lone board representative of broader public concerns when weighing issues like port expansion.
"It's a really big challenge," she said. "But the issues raised by the municipalities are really important, so it's worth the hard work and it's worth the challenge. And it's worth making sure if yours is the sole voice at the table it gets heard."
The port has three times ordered revisions to the coal terminal project or sent it back to Fraser Surrey Docks for more study, although it's not clear what influence Priddy may have had – she won't say what happens around the board table.
Coal isn't the only issue that pits the region's cities against the port.
Metro politicians have also been strongly critical of the port's new land use plan and they remain concerned that the port will push to secure more industrial land for growth at the expense of farmland.
Other prickly issues on the horizon include Deltaport's expansion, the prospect of more tankers carrying oil from an expanded Kinder Morgan pipeline and the potential conversion of the Massey Tunnel to a bridge allowing ocean-going ships up the Fraser River.
Don't expect Priddy to say much publicly about those topics either.
"My role isn't to be a public advocate for every citizen in every municipality," she said.
Priddy noted there's no consensus among politicians on Metro's board on some port issues.
"There are different opinions on the Metro Vancouver board on lots of key issues," she said. "I make sure those get to the (port) board. Is it challenging? You bet it is."