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Coal Port CEO, Regulator at Odds over Air Quality Permit

Fraser Surrey Docks says review of dust, diesel emissions is 'voluntary.' Not so fast, counters Metro Van.

David P Ball 18 Sep

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

The CEO behind a proposed coal export terminal says his firm's upcoming application for a regional air quality permit from Metro Vancouver is purely voluntary, and consequently non-binding, after the federal port authority approved the project on Aug. 21.

But Metro Vancouver, a 24-municipality body that has authority over air quality regulation in the region, disputes that account and vows to hold further public hearings on the project's potential air pollution risks.

Port Metro Vancouver, a body unrelated to Metro Vancouver, approved the Fraser Surrey Docks project last month.

Metro Vancouver's board previously opposed the firm's proposal to export up to four million tonnes of U.S. thermal coal a year to Asian markets via Surrey and Texada Island.

Fraser Surrey Docks CEO Jeff Scott disputes that the air quality permit is mandatory and explained his side in a telephone interview. "We don't need that piece to move forward," he said of the permit. "It is a process we'd undertake on a voluntary basis with Metro Vancouver."

Scott said the project already underwent extensive voluntary reviews of its health and environmental impacts, as well as public consultations, which he said proved it would not pose significant risks to residents or the environment.

Under B.C.'s Environmental Management Act, the province delegated authority to Metro Vancouver to "prohibit, regulate and otherwise control and prevent the discharge of air contaminants" in the region.

For Roger Quan, Metro Vancouver's director of air quality and environment, the legislation is proof that his agency has the power to force Fraser Surrey Docks to obtain a permit. "We believe it's not voluntary, that it's a requirement, and that we have the jurisdiction to regulate air contaminants from their facility," he said.

If the permit is denied and the Fraser Surrey Docks project nonetheless pollutes, Metro Vancouver argues that it has the authority to pursue the matter in court.

Firm applying for permit regardless

Fraser Surrey Docks is currently embroiled in an unrelated court case over a $10,000 fine for pollution issued by Metro Vancouver.

Quan said the fall 2013 ticket was over a "discharge of soy bean dust" that spread to neighbouring Surrey and New Westminster across the Fraser River. But the company is appealing the penalty, arguing that federally managed port lands are outside the region's jurisdiction.

"They're challenging that and saying Metro doesn't have authority for air quality on federal lands," Quan said. "We believe we do have that authority delegated under the Environmental Management Act."

Though they disagree over whether it's mandatory or not, Fraser Surrey Docks still plans to apply for Metro's permit. The firm has not yet formally applied, but has been in "preliminary discussions," Quan said.

If and when it does apply, Metro Vancouver would require the company to supply data on potential sources of emissions -- for instance, diesel exhaust from locomotives and coal dust where it's unloaded from train to barges -- as well as "dispersion modeling" of what concentrations of pollutants might spread into the surrounding area.

Fraser Surrey Docks already amended its proposal to not store coal on site, as was in the firm's original application. Scott said he plans to start construction in the "next couple months."

Metro Vancouver's environmental regulation and enforcement division manager Ray Robb will ultimately decide whether or not to grant the permit, and that decision can be appealed.

"The bottom line is if they did not get a permit to discharge air contaminants, they would be in violation of provincial law," Ray Robb said. "If they are discharging air contaminants into the environment, then we would need to look at whether or not charges are warranted."

Nothing to stop construction

Unlike Fraser Surrey Docks' application, Port Metro Vancouver did require a regional air quality permit when it approved North Vancouver's Neptune Terminals, set to more than double its coal facility to 18 million tonnes annually.

Without that for Scott's project, Quan said nothing can stop shovels from hitting the ground in Surrey. All Metro can do is attempt to assert authority over how the facility operates, particularly in its enclosed areas where coal is moving.

Quan explained that his department was already monitoring "baseline" levels of train and coal pollution along the railway tracks in White Rock, Delta and North Vancouver. That can be used to compare Fraser Surrey Docks' predicted releases.

Quan said the air permit process would not only be a matter of technical measurements and data analysis, but would involve close consultations with regional health authorities, which have expressed concern about human health impacts of diesel and coal dust, as well as "significant" public consultations and information sessions.

Scott still sees Port Metro Vancouver's approval as the final hurdle for a project that has faced protracted efforts to halt it by climate change campaigners, as well as opposition from city councils including New Westminster, Vancouver and Burnaby.

"It's been a long road and a long process," Scott said. "We're going to work very closely with the port authority to ensure the project meets the highest environmental, safety and air quality standards."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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