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Religious Leaders 'Faith Off' Against Texada Coal Terminal

Congregations raise flags over BC thermal coal exports.

By David P. Ball 14 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Vancouver Rabbi David Mivasair cites an ancient midrash, or biblical commentary, to explain why he opposes thermal coal exports through B.C.'s Texada Island in a new letter.

Roughly two thousand years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes Rabba imagined God's words to Adam after placing him in the Garden of Eden.

"Behold my creation how lovely and wonderful it is," reads the Jewish text. "Make sure that you do not spoil or destroy my world, for if you damage it there is no one to repair it after you."

Mivasair, the rabbi of Ahavat Olam Synagogue, said such teachings are essential to his faith -- and that's why he's joined more than 50 B.C. religious leaders, ranging between Sikh, Christian and Unitarian, in opposing the exports.

"Human beings are the only creatures with the power to mess things up so bad. That applies to coal and other things like it," he said. "As human knowledge and technology gets stronger and stronger, we're more and more liable to ruin this creation. People with religious and spiritual values have to speak up about it."

Under scrutiny is the B.C. government's quiet approval in March of plans to allow a Texada facility to double its current coal storage capacity to 800,000 tonnes -- a crucial component of Fraser Surrey Docks' proposal to dramatically increase U.S. thermal coal exports to China.

The religious leaders yesterday called on Premier Christy Clark to reverse her government's go-ahead for increased thermal coal exports through the 10-kilometre wide, 50-kilometre long island. It also seeks a "phase out" of the province's increasing coal exports from the U.S.

Thermal coal, unlike coal mined in B.C. which is used for producing metal, is burned as a fossil fuel and one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

An island divided

The Tyee reached out to both the head of the local chamber of commerce and the minister of Texada's United Church -- it and a Jehovah's Witnesses hall are the only congregations on the island.

Turns out she's one and the same person.

"You have to remember this is a really small island, so we all wear many hats!" said the Rev. Karen May with a laugh.

The 17-year resident of the island town of Van Anda, just south of Powell River, said that the community's 1,053 residents are divided over the coal facility plans, which would see coal arriving by barges from Fraser Surrey Docks and transferred to deep sea ships bound for Asia.

Despite being heavily forested and a popular destination for the region's deer hunters, parts of Texada Island are already heavily industrialized. The bulk of employment, May said, is in mining and forestry.

"It's always been a fairly working island," she said. "Not everyone on the island is in support of this movement -- those things coexist here mostly well, but sometimes uneasily.

"But the whole issue is very important to the health of Texadans, in terms of the health impact of hugely increasing the storage of thermal coal here on our coast. I also am concerned about the health of the environment, both locally and in China where the coal eventually will be burned."

Earlier this year, coal opponents released photographs of what they believed to be coal washed up on a beach not far from the existing coal facility at Texada Quarries Ltd., which is owned by the French multinational Lafarge.

When residents commissioned a specialist to analyze the beach samples, the advocacy group Voters Taking Action for Climate Change said the results were frightening: "Lab results show a chemical signature consistent with coal," it said in an April statement. "In addition, the samples showed extremely high levels of arsenic."

Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman Matt Gordon said the government's own analysis of the black substance found on a Texada beach turned out not to be coal, as some residents and advocates feared. He added that the decision to approve the doubling of Texada Quarry Ltd.'s coal storage facility was "completely independent of any political influence."

"The quarry must adhere to the environmental standards and safeguards as set in place by the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia," he said in an emailed statement. "There are also terms and conditions set out in the permit for the additional storage capacity for the coal."

The ministry pointed out that the facility's existing shipping license permits up to 12 million tonnes of coal every year, but that currently only a maximum of 400,000 tonnes of coal actually move through Texada annually, alongside eight million tonnes of aggregate.

'We are part of a much larger whole'

A local First Nation is also concerned about potential negative impacts from the Texada facility increasing its coal shipments.

Chief Calvin Craigan of the shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation accused the province of "ignoring coastal communities, ignoring First Nations, and ignoring the impacts of this project on resources in our traditional territory," he said in a statement.

While proponents of the export proposal, which could see B.C. become North America's highest-output coal exporter, tout a boost in local jobs and economic stimulus, some on Texada are not so sure.

"We don't feel there is going to be any real net increase in jobs at all," May said. "What this may do is secure the jobs that are already here for a bit longer, but we're not convinced that there's actually going to be a net increase in economic activity for the island itself."

The religious aspect of the new letter interests May, as both a preacher and commerce advocate. She said many on the island live "pretty close to nature," and that faith leaders have a unique role to play in speaking out -- as she is doing in calling for a full health impact study on coal's plans for her island home.

"We are part of a much larger whole," she mused. "The gift of creation does not entitle or direct human beings to trash everything else. That's an important theological concept and where most faith leaders are coming from: it's important to look after our home."

For Rabbi Mivasair, the dangers of exporting thermal coal through B.C. are most devastating in terms of global climate change, but it's a good example of an issue where locals can have a long reach.

"Local decision-making can make a great difference with this, something that has such a global impact," he said. "It's something we can actually do something about."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, BC Politics

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