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Activists demand public hearings for coal export project

A spirited but orderly group concerned about a proposal to increase U.S. thermal coal exports through the Surrey Fraser docks (turning the Port of Vancouver into one of North America's highest volume exporters of coal), made an attempt today to meet with the board of directors of the Vancouver Port Authority.

The activists, drawn from many Lower Mainland communities, are concerned about the health, air and water pollution impacts of coal dust that would result from increased exports, and about the impact burning the exported coal would have on global warming and climate change.

"We're here to deliver a message to the port authority," Kevin Washbrook, director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, told the community activists, who assembled this afternoon outside the Canada Place offices of the Port Authority. "The message is. . . do your job."

Washbrook said his and other anti-coal groups had been asking for a meeting with the Port Authority board for months now, and hoped at today's action to deliver more than 2,000 letters and petition signatures urging the board to engage in real community consultation.

Surrey Fraser Docks LP is the company that wants to build the new facility that would move an additional four million tonnes of coal per year through the port. It has scheduled several open houses in Surrey this week so the public can view its plans.

Washbrook said these are "public relations" events; not real consultation, and not acceptable.

Kathryn Harrison, a UBC political science professor and volunteer director of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, noted that the governments of Vancouver, White Rock, and Surrey, as well as the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health Authorities, all have expressed concerns with the project itself or the consultation process.

"Open houses, such as those taking place this week, can be a reasonable approach to local planning in a homogenous community, but are ill-suited to a proposal that has provoked such controversy," Harrison wrote in a letter to The Tyee. "In contrast, public hearings sponsored by either the federal or provincial government, would allow for transparent input from all sides by experts and other citizens."

Saying that the action was not meant to be a demonstration, Washbrook told the crowd: "This will be a formal, dignified event. We are not protesting, we're requesting that our public regulator do its job. Our one demand: delay a decision on this coal export proposal until you have fully consulted the regional public. That means open and transparent public hearings."

Rabbi David Mivasair (of Vancouver's progressive Ahavat Olam congregation) told the crowd that they were all there, as he was, to protect the earth. "In my spiritual tradition," he said, "there is a rabbinic teaching that tells us God told Adam 'This is the world I made. If you ruin it, there is no one to set it right.'"

Sam Harrison, a founder and spokesperson for Kids for Climate Action, echoed Washbrook's call to the Port Authority to conduct meaningful consultation. He told the crowd outside the Authority offices that his group had demonstrated there in February and had been promised a public meeting to be sponsored by his high school student group and the board would be organized to promote public input.  

He said the board had informed him this week that it was cancelling its commitment to the public meeting because spokespeople for the coal industry had refused to attend.

A few of the community activists were allowed to enter the Port Authority offices and deliver letters and petitions, but they were told that no one from the board was free to meet with them, according to Washbrook after the delegation returned to the larger group outside the doors.

"The board is hiding from the public," Washbrook told the crowd, "and hoping to hand the process off to the company. We'll be back."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

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