Confab of municipalities passes resolution in favour of greater oversight.
Donna Shugar, Sunshine Coast Regional District director for Area D (Roberts Creek), votes for her successful motion on thermal coal transport. Photo by Kai Nagata.
The province's 190 local governments and 26 districts are calling for more government oversight over thermal coal exports in British Columbia, which are set to increase after a recent federal decision.
Delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities' annual meeting in Whistler voted in favour of an assessment of the health and environmental risks of coal carried by train from the U.S. through White Rock and Surrey, and by barge to B.C.'s Texada Island -- a corridor beyond the scope of Port Metro Vancouver's own required reviews.
The UBCM resolution states that "there is currently no mechanism that provides oversight or ensures the implementation of mitigation measures to minimize environmental and health impacts of thermal coal transport over coastal waters and by rail."
It calls for "a comprehensive environmental and health impact assessment for the shipment of thermal coal over coastal waters and by rail," and that a provincial or federal agency be chosen to monitor it.
Though non-binding on the provincial or federal governments, the vote came five weeks after a federal port authority approved Fraser Surrey Docks' application to build a transfer facility for four million tonnes of thermal coal a year. The facility could eventually handle up to eight million tonnes annually of U.S.-mined coal used for burning in Asian power plants.
Another nearby facility, Neptune Terminals on the North Shore, was previously approved to increase its coal handling to 18 million tonnes, but only for the type of metallurgical coal mined in B.C. used for steel production, and considered cleaner by many.
'It goes right past our shoreline'
"The concern is about this particular type of dirty coal," said Sunshine Coast Regional District director Donna Shugar, who proposed the resolution. "Not that any coal is clean, but [thermal coal] has way more toxins and it gives off a dust that is difficult to control."
Despite an Aug. 21 approval by Port Metro Vancouver -- the federally appointed body in charge of federal port lands -- Shugar said that Fraser Surrey Docks was only required to assess the health and environmental impacts of its immediate surroundings, but not barge transport to Texada or railway lines from the U.S. border.
UBCM RESOLUTION 'B92'
Environmental Assessments for Thermal Coal Transport
WHEREAS assessment studies provided to Port Metro Vancouver have not assessed the environmental or health impacts related to the release of thermal coal dust during barge transfer and transport over coastal waters between the Port of Metro Vancouver and Texada Island;
AND WHEREAS there is currently no mechanism that provides oversight or ensures the implementation of mitigation measures to minimize environmental and health impacts of thermal coal transport over coastal waters and by rail:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that a comprehensive environmental and health impact assessment for the shipment of thermal coal over coastal waters and by rail be conducted;
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that an appropriate federal and/or provincial agency be named to monitor barge transfer and transport of thermal coal over coastal waters and by rail to ensure oversight and implementation of environmental and health protection measures.
"They're approving something that goes way beyond their location. It goes right past our shoreline and through some pretty challenging waters," she said. "We've been left out of the process; so has the Sechelt First Nation."
The resolution passed almost unanimously, said New Westminster councillor Chuck Puchmayr, who is also in Whistler. "Very few people actually voted in opposition to it. It got support throughout the province, bipartisan support from the members of the UBCM."
Two speakers rose with concerns about the proposal. One was worried that a focus on barge transport through the Gulf Islands ignored the risks of transporting coal by rail, particularly around dust and locomotives' diesel exhaust. Rail was added to the motion.
Another speaker argued the resolution's wording needed to specify that only thermal coal be criticized, not B.C. metallurgical coal, and the motion was amended again.
"This is not an attack against Canadian coal, which produces a lot of jobs in B.C. and has been shipped for many years out of Neptune and Westshore terminals," Puchmayr said. "This is about dirty, cheap American coal that's very volatile and creates virtually no jobs."
Fears growing over 'dangerous' coal: councillor
Puchmayr, whose New Westminster council is one of several that previously voted against the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal, said he was anxious the coal motion might not pass after a similar motion against Kinder Morgan's oilsands pipeline was narrowly defeated at the UBCM conference.
Last week, the city applied to become an intervenor in a court case against the coal terminal proposal, in which climate activists are seeking a judicial review of Fraser Surrey Docks' permit. He said people are starting to worry about the dangers of thermal coal.
"It actually ignites on its own, and requires [that] fire retardant and dust suppressants be applied to it when it goes into rail cars. It's an extremely dangerous product," he said. "Do we want an American thermal coal port that's going to produce [few] Canadian jobs, 30-kilometres inland, in the dead centre of Metro Vancouver?"
New Westminster and the judicial review applicants are also arguing that the downstream climate change impacts -- greenhouse gases emitted once the coal is burned -- must be taken into consideration by the port authority.
Port Metro Vancouver declined a Tyee interview request, but provided links to a variety of web pages related to its decision to approve the Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal. A port spokesman acknowledged the legal challenge but would not provide further comment about it.
"Port Metro Vancouver has received a notice of application for a judicial review of the permitting decision for the Fraser Surrey Docks direct coal transfer facility," John Parker-Jervis said via email. "We will review the information and be assessing our next steps going forward.
"It is important to note, a judicial review is a regular avenue available to any person or party that wishes to challenge any regulatory decision of this nature."
Fraser Surrey Docks is currently in court over an unrelated $10,000 fine for air pollution, arguing that the regional government umbrella body has no jurisdiction over federal port land. The outcome of that case could affect whether the firm can launch its proposed terminal or face further legal action.
In a previous interview, the company's CEO and president vowed that his proposal would "ensure the project meets the highest environmental, safety and air quality standards."