"We're a secure marine facility," Jeff Scott says, pulling a fluorescent safety vest over his suit jacket, "so I can't have you going out and taking a whole bunch of pictures out there."
Gaining access to the Fraser Surrey Docks terminal, the site of a controversial proposal for a new coal export facility, requires me to navigate a checkpoint, deposit my driver's license with the guardhouse as collateral, and wait for official clearance before the tall chain link gate sidles slowly open.
Standing by the ocean's edge at the far end of the yard, the terminal's president and CEO motions to where trains laden with U.S. coal -- four million tons of the fossil fuel every year, and eventually double that -- would drop their cargo onto enclosed conveyor belts, where it would be loaded onto barges bound for Texada Island's deep sea terminal, and from there to China and other Asian markets.
Fraser Surrey Docks' proposed foray into coal exports, plus the recently approved Neptune Terminals expansion in North Vancouver, would see the Lower Mainland region's trafficking in the fossil fuel grow by 35 per cent, making it the largest coal port in North America.
The sudden swell of B.C.'s role in the global coal trade, consisting mainly of lower-grade U.S. product destined for China, has become a burning issue for environmental advocates. They are concerned not only about issues of air quality and health, but also about the substance's significant greenhouse gas emissions. When the various port plans hit headlines last November, it led to opposition from city mayors throughout the region, and raised the profile of increasing anxiety on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border over the fossil fuel's export.
At first, Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) -- the agency which approves new projects -- maintained that Fraser Surrey Docks had "adequately" consulted the public on its plans: "There's no expectation that there's going to be any further public engagement activities," a spokesperson told The Tyee in November.
But on April 23, PMV changed course, promising to hold two open houses in May to allow the public to directly question its representatives, as well as those of Fraser Surrey Docks and BNSF Railway, which would transport the coal from the U.S.
Metro Vancouver's environment and parks committee recently passed resolutions calling for health impact and air quality assessments of coal dust emissions, a say in the review process, and pushed the region-wide body to "express opposition to coal shipments from Fraser River Estuary other than the existing Robert Banks coal port."
Metro's board will vote on the matter by the end of the month; if approved, the board would join the mayors of Vancouver, White Rock and Surrey in criticizing the proposal.
The group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC) is also calling for the long-term impacts of burning the coal overseas to be taken into account when approving projects. The group is frustrated that the consultation process for Fraser Surrey Docks mostly involved the company mailing glossy fliers promoting their project to its neighbours, a spokesperson said.
Air pollution associated with coal dust has also featured prominently in the coal debate. In December, the B.C. Lung Association came out against the Fraser Surrey Docks plan.
With Metro Vancouver now raising the spectre of an air quality review of the project, it may wrest sole review power from PMV, potentially opening the door to public consultations sought by activists, but so far rejected by the port authority.
Public should 'have confidence in us': CEO
"It's a really welcome surprise," VTACC's Kevin Washbrook told The Tyee. "Metro Vancouver has the regulatory power over air quality in the Lower Mainland.
"Fraser Surrey Docks has no air emissions permit. If they want to build a coal port, they have to get one, and Metro Vancouver has the power to approve that or not.... What they're basically saying is there will be public consultation on coal exports, and they'll be in charge of it. The port authority has basically rejected all those calls for broader consultation, (but) the public will finally get a day to speak on this issue."
Still, natural resources continue to form the backbone of Canada's wealth, Scott reminds me. Coal is a key ingredient in creating steel, and roughly 40 per cent of the world burns coal for electricity, even if Canada is less reliant on it as an energy source. I ask if part of the public criticism stems from modern urban dwellers not grasping how much of the national economy still relies on raw resources, exports and imports.
"Yeah, they don't," he says, sighing audibly. "I think, in part, it's a lack of understanding or awareness.
"They have to have confidence in us that we have their best interests in mind. We don't just blindly take on any commodity or cargo. The first thing we always think about is, 'Can we handle this safely? Can we handle it effectively? Can we mitigate any impact to the local stakeholders?' "
Scott will have worked at Fraser Surrey Docks for 20 years this year. Unlike some company CEOs, parachuted in via executive search agencies, he worked his way up through the ranks since starting as a labour dispatcher in the terminal's operations department, straight out of university.
Inside his ocean-side offices (a blockish monument to corrugated metal), the goateed executive, now in his early forties, shows off a map of his operations, pointing out the path of the planned BNSF train loop reaching the waters' edge.
Much of the debate around the production and export of coal has centred on impacts: exported coal's impact on global warming; coal's impact on the local and national economy; coal dust's impact on air quality and residents' health; trade's impact on the Asia-Pacific gateway. With B.C. ports key to that market, Scott acknowledges that ports do have a massive reach and a major impact on citizens.
"It's right on the pulse of the economy, and on the pulse of international trade," he explains. "What we do every day affects people's lives, right? When you go to the store or supermarket, everything we buy, purchase or consume comes through a port. That's pretty exciting to be a part of that, and have that influence over the local economy, and over the national economy.... I don't think that people really put that in perspective."
'Make this an election issue': Washbrook
Our conversation turns to a Dec. 7 accident at Westshore Terminals, only half-an-hour away, when coal plunged the Roberts Point waters after a bulk carrier rammed a conveyor belt, halting operations for several months. At first Scott declines comment, glances hesitantly at his staffperson across the conference room table, and then reminds me it was not the Fraser Surrey Docks facility, but still "an unfortunate accident."
"For us, if something were to occur, we'd implement the emergency response plan to mitigate any impact," he says. "We believe that would be an unlikely event, but that's the way we're focusing on it. If there's anything that can be learned from that situation, we're more than willing to look at our operations and see if there's anything we can do to enhance them even further."
I return my safety vest and drive back across the sprawling concrete plain that is Fraser Surrey Docks, a complex mishmash of painted lines creating no clear path back to the exit, where guards return my ID as the gate seals behind me.
While the port authority has declined to say when it hopes to make its decision on Fraser Surrey Docks' plans, Scott told The Tyee that the project could be operational "by mid- to late-summer."
Scott remains confident that his firm will see its coal terminal approved, claiming the support of neighbouring residents. It has exported many products for five decades without a problem, he says. But with opposition to coal ramping up on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, activists like Washbrook believe it's the proponents who don't understand the depth of public sentiment this election season.
"We have to make this an election issue," Washbrook said. "What are we doing exporting coal to China? We know it's bad, so how can we keep doing that? We need to take responsibility."