Health debate on over B.C. coal shipments

VANCOUVER – Residents of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland have been raising questions about the impact of coal trains on human health, just as the province’s economy prepares to kick into high gear over resource development and a major port mulls the creation of a new facility for the fossil fuel.

Politicians at the Metro Vancouver regional board are expected to debate a recommendation this morning that opposes coal shipments from the Fraser River estuary, except for those leaving the terminal at Roberts Bank, in Delta, B.C. The recommendation also calls for a health-impact assessment during reviews of new and expanded facilities.

It takes aim specifically at a proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks to build a direct-transfer coal facility that could handle up to four million metric tonnes of the fossil fuel used to make steel and run power plants.

Nine delegations are already scheduled to speak to the matter, not including Paul Van Buynder, chief medical health officer for Fraser Health, who said he cancelled meetings in Ottawa so he could address the regional board.

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“The amount and quality of the information provided to me to review is insufficient for me to make a statement that I think that this is safe to go ahead at this point,” said Van Buynder.

Specifically, he said there is a lack of knowledge about the impacts of coal trains as they move through populated areas, and he would like to see a broad-based health-impact assessment before the project is approved or anybody says it’s even safe.

A study would ensure the public is protected and may take six to 12 months to complete if the parties can agree on terms of reference and the project is properly funded.

Such requests are not unique. This past May, more than 220 doctors from Whatcom and Skagit counties, located across the border and south of Surrey, B.C., wrote city council in Bellingham, Wash., calling for a health-impact assessment on a coal terminal.

“The Australian” newspaper also reported this week that country’s senate will hold an inquiry into air pollution and focus heavily on the dangers of coal dust.

When it comes to the impacts of coal on human health, Van Buynder said most of the data focuses on people living in areas of higher exposure, such as coal mines. He said asthmatics have seen their conditions worsen, while doctors have witnessed increases in birth abnormalities.

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The Surrey project was originally proposed in 2012 and would see what’s known as a direct-transfer coal facility built at the southwestern end of the existing terminal.

According to Port Metro Vancouver, which is reviewing the application, workers would transfer coal from Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail to the terminal and then load it directly onto barges.

Tugs would pull single barges down the Fraser River. After passing what’s known as Sand Heads, tugs would pull tandem barges to Texada Island, where the coal would be stored and then transferred to deep-sea-vessels for export.

Port Metro Vancouver has already stated the proposed port could eventually handle as much as eight million metric tonnes of coal annually.

Allan Fryer, a spokesman for the Coal Alliance, a group that represents the industry, said he understands the issue is controversial, but companies have been shipping coal safely for more than 40 years and facilities like Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank in Delta, B.C., have invested millions of dollars in dust suppression.

“We’re keeping the dust for the most part where it belongs in the rail cars and on the terminals and, you know, the proof is there,” he said.

Fryer said air-quality has improved steadily in the area, even as activity at the terminal has increased.

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He pointed to a June 1998 study, written by the South Fraser Health Region, that concluded it was unlikely local residents were facing health risks because of operations at Roberts Bank.

The report noted prevailing winds were directed away from residential areas, and dust fall levels at the terminal fell within provincial and Workers Compensation Board guidelines.

Jim Crandles, director of planning and development for Port Metro Vancouver, said his organization is currently reviewing the application, and the port will not issue a permit “until all technical reviews and any required municipal, First Nations, and community consultation are complete.”

Yet many local residents still remain concerned about the project, including Phil Le Good, a resident of White Rock, B.C., who is scheduled to appear before the board.

In a summary of his submission, Le Good said he wants the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to examine the “full environmental, social and economic impacts” of an expanded facility at Fraser Surrey Docks.

He said the current coal trains pass by White Rock’s pier and promenade, within a metre of locals and tourists.

“White Rock provides some of the best passive recreation in the region,” he writes. “Its promenade, beaches and restaurants are frequented by tens of thousands of the region’s residents on some peak days. The number of tourism jobs far exceeds anything that the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal will ever create (now or into the future).”

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Meantime, Van Buynder said if Port Metro Vancouver issues a permit to Fraser Surrey Docks, he’d like to see monitoring continue.

He said he’d like special dust monitors set up in sensitive areas down wind of any coal stockpile. Doing so would mean health officials and the port would have to agree how much coal could be in the air at any given time.

Van Buynder said the public should also be able to access such information, and the docks should be required to write mitigation steps to reduce pollution.

Learn about the coal debate in B.C. with our Coal Train series.

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