By R. Bruce Striegler

Port Metro Vancouver questioned over its coal plans

A bid by coal companies from the U.S. and port facilities in British Columbia, if approved, could potentially increase exposure to coal dust and its associated health hazards to hundreds of thousands of people in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. As new U.S. regulations shut down coal-burning electricity plants, American coal producers are desperate for new outlets, and countries like China, Japan and Korea are hungry for supply. In their opposition, Canadian and U.S. environmentalists have focussed not only on the harmful health effects of coal dust, but also point out that continued mining and export of coal results in further greenhouse gas emissions globally. They are outraged that the U.S. industry is now looking to turn Metro Vancouver into what they are calling the biggest coal export zone in the western hemisphere. In a recent report from Port Metro Vancouver, U.S. coal exports increased 56 per cent, while B.C. and Alberta coal exports decreased 12 per cent.

A Sierra Club B.C. anti-coal campaigner is quoted in news stories, saying, “Increasing coal exports through B.C. ports would facilitate expansion of the coal industry and lead to increased global warming, putting the future of B.C. communities at risk. The time is now to phase out our dependence on coal and other fossil fuels and transition to a green energy future.” As if to underscore the opposition, Kinder Morgan cancelled plans in May to construct three coal terminals in Oregon, while more and more American Pacific coastal municipalities are under extreme environmental pressure not to approve coal-exporting facilities.

Port Metro Vancouver’s dominant position is being challenged by plans which remain on-track, to develop what the promoters are calling the largest coal export facility in North America at Cherry Point, Washington, only 20 minutes south of the U.S. border and the Roberts Bank location of Westshore Terminals. Called the Gateway Pacific Terminal, the project is headed by Pacific International Terminals, owned by SSA Marine, a $1-billion-a-year, family-owned company with over 10,000 employees.

Fraser Surrey Docks proposed coal facility at heart of protest

The large coal transport and export project applications have sizeable numbers of the citizenry of Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia unhappy, with many in full activist mode. In B.C., Fraser Surrey Docks, a terminal under the authority of Port Metro Vancouver, has applied to the Port to construct an estimated $15 million facility to handle up to four million metric tonnes per year. Activists have seized on the potential to increase volumes up to eight million tonnes per year over the long term. However, any increase over four million will be subject to a new Port Metro Vancouver project permit and environmental review. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Surrey Fraser Docks joined Green Marine in March of this year.

Coal hauled by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana would arrive at the proposed new Canadian terminal via unit trains, each about 110 cars or more, with at least two trains per day. From the inland states, the route winds along the shoreline of Puget Sound north of Seattle, across the border and past kilometres of White Rock, B.C. beaches before cutting through the commercial farmlands of Delta to the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks terminal. Situated on the south shore of the Fraser River, the terminal has not previously handled coal, and the spectre of massive clouds of coal dust rolling off the extended trains as they speed across a large swath of this recreational/agricultural region has made residents angry and fearful.

Average hopper or gondola cars can carry 100 to 110 tonnes of coal, and while reports vary, depending upon weather, train speed and other factors, even Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) acknowledges that coal trains spill a lot of dust. BNSF’s studies show that 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car. A 100-car train, therefore, may spill 50,000 pounds of coal dust into rivers, fields and towns along its right-of-way. In mid-June, the regional governing body for Metro Vancouver voted to oppose U.S. coal shipments through Fraser Surrey Docks, citing concerns over air quality, the only issue of the proposal Metro Vancouver has jurisdiction over.

From the river-front terminal in the highly-populous City of Surrey, (part of Metro Vancouver) the U.S. coal would be barged down the Fraser and onto the open and always windy waters of the Strait of Georgia. An approximate 100 kilometre journey north ends at a deep-sea port facility on Texada Island, which has also applied for an expansion permit to handle increased coal volumes, and is where the coal will be transferred to deep-sea vessels for shipment to various Asian ports.

Presently at Texada Island, Lafarge North America mines high-quality limestone, construction and asphalt-quality aggregates from an area where gold was mined a century ago and iron was harvested until the 1970s. Since then, companies such as Lafarge have mined millions of tonnes of these products from Texada. The company also imports coal, gypsum and slag by barge to a deep-sea port on the island and, in turn, exports its products via ships to overseas customers. Lafarge anticipates the amount of coal stored, should the proposal go forward, would be between six to 18 times what is currently stored at the site.

Texada Island may relish its history as an island of mines and quarries, but people living there now, on the nearby mainland, and across the strait on Vancouver Island, share the same worries over coal dust that has become an issue on the Lower Mainland. The opponents are concerned about increased pollution of the marine environment and health impacts on residents breathing dust particulates. People have also voiced concern over Lafarge’s apparent lack of a plan to address airborne coal dust and particulate matter linked to cancer, lung inflammation, and cardio-vascular disease. Critics have expressed additional concerns over Lafarge’s proposed storm water management plan which envisages only one extreme rainfall event once every five years. (The B.C. coast is designated rainforest climate.)

The permit application contains no detail about controlling coal dust from the barges nor does it address on-site storage, provides no explanation if coal piles will be wetted for dust control or where the water to do this may come from. Backed by calls from a wide range of environmental organizations, regional health professionals including Fraser Health Authority Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Paul Van Buynder, and Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, are requesting a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment as well as an Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of airborne coal dust on communities along the entire proposed rail and shipping route.

Transport and port facilities try harder in the face of public unease

A YouTube video posted online in July and picked up by Vancouver’s local television newscasts, graphically made the point protestors have been concerned about. Although the clip was not of a BNSF train with American coal, the video showed a CP Rail coal train enroute from B.C.’s coal fields to Westshore Terminals at Roberts Bank.

The train was rolling at speed through the Delta farmlands with highly visible clouds of dust streaming off the cars. CP Rail investigated, a spokesperson saying they took the dust issue very seriously. He added that CP Rail has increased the amount of sealant sprayed on coal-carrying cars, a surface stabilizer proven through operations to reduce dust by up to 85 per cent.

Delta’s Mayor, Lois Jackson told reporters, “That was not the norm, we tracked that back, legitimately, to the mine head and the sprayers were not operable at that time.” Jackson said that train was allowed to roll down the tracks anyway but she has received assurances it won’t happen again.

It’s not that residents in the Metro Vancouver region have never dealt with coal exports, but the cumulative size and number of these new expansion proposals has generated unusual levels of concern and garnered extensive media coverage. Port Metro Vancouver’s existing coal terminals include Westshore Terminals at Deltaport which is already Canada’s biggest coal terminal, 20 kilometres south of Vancouver. At any given time, about 1.5 million tons of coal is stored in piles sometimes rising eight stories high. Westshore has just spent $8.5 million upgrading a series of pumps, rain guns and misting devices used to dampen and control dust from the piles, costing about $1.5 million each year in water charges. Westshore’s Manager of Engineering and Environmental Services spoke to the Delta Municipality council in July, saying, “Anecdotally, we hear a lot of complaints about the fact that there is dust in the community that is coal,” Continuing, he said that in the 17 investigations Westshore has conducted over the last ten years, 13 resulted in finding no coal dust.

Port Metro Vancouver issued a project permit in January 2013 to Neptune Terminals, the second existing Port Metro Vancouver terminal handling coal, to expand the terminal’s steel-making coal handling capacity. Located in North Vancouver, across Burrard Inlet from the City of Vancouver, Neptune is now investing approximately $63.5 million constructing a second enclosed railcar dumper, making on-site track and ship loader improvements, adding conveyors and upgrading site power systems. The improvements will increase Neptune’s capacity to 18.5 million tonnes and add one train per day and one ship per week.

Industry professionals feel protests and concerns over-stated

In an opinion piece published in late July in the Vancouver Sun, toxicologist and biologist Tom A. Watson, President of a local environmental consulting firm wrote, “The potential exposure to even negligible levels of coal dust is being misrepresented and exaggerated as having the potential for causing illnesses typically associated with long-term, lifelong occupational exposures to high levels of coal dust. The province of British Columbia sets safe levels for occupational exposure to coal dust for people who work with coal every single day over an entire lifetime. The existing Westshore and Neptune terminals operate well within these standards. The estimated levels for the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal, for example, would be up to 50 times lower than those limits. It is not reasonable to conclude individuals exposed to these predicted and negligible levels of coal dust will be adversely affected.” It’s not clear whether Mr. Watson’s opinion includes conditions at the Texada Island terminal, or just the Fraser Surrey Docks facility.

Despite protests, coal mining and export from B.C. is not likely to come to an end any time soon. With the recent interest from India to secure a long-term supply of B.C.’s high-quality coking coal and as new B.C. mines continue to develop and come on-stream, the domestic production and export of the commodity will only grow. For example, Fortune Minerals, a London, Ontario company is developing the Arctos Anthracite Project in northern B.C. in an 80/20-per-cent partnership with a subsidiary of POSCO, the giant Korean steelmaker.

Cardero Resources is developing its Carbon Creek metallurgical coal deposit in northeast B.C., which with a current measured resource of 468 million tonnes and an initial reserve of 121 million tonnes make it the largest single coal resource in the Peace River region. Port Metro Vancouver continues its review of the Surrey Fraser Docks proposal for further export of American coal, ordering the terminal to conduct a full environmental impact assessment before giving a go-ahead to build the coal-transfer facility.

“We will be specifically looking at the impacts of coal on human health, the impacts of dust through the supply chain and the handling of the product. We will be looking at noise and traffic and other components in terms of added volume in the transportation chain,” says Jeff Scott, CEO Fraser Surrey Docks.