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Port reopens probe of health risks from Surrey coal terminal

Existing Westshore Terminals coal export terminal at Deltaport. Fraser Surrey Docks proposed a new coal handling facility that would send barges down the Fraser River and to Texada Island for reloading to ocean-going ships. - File
Existing Westshore Terminals coal export terminal at Deltaport. Fraser Surrey Docks proposed a new coal handling facility that would send barges down the Fraser River and to Texada Island for reloading to ocean-going ships.
— image credit: File

Port Metro Vancouver has again delayed its decision on a contentious new coal export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks in an attempt to address ongoing public concern about the risks.

Port officials said Wednesday an environmental impact assessment submitted by Fraser Surrey Docks in November did not include enough information on the potential human health impacts of the $15-million project.

The port authority has asked the terminal operator to plug numerous gaps identified in the assessment, some of which had been flagged by public health officials.

"We've asked for an assessment of the risk to human health for the components in coal dust and diesel emissions," said Jim Crandles, the director of planning and development for Port Metro Vancouver.

"This assessment is to evaluate the potential effects of fugitive coal dust and diesel emissions on sensitive populations – such as children or the elderly."

He said it would also look at risks from both direct contact of residents with coal dust as well as indirect exposure, such as coal dust contamination of garden vegetables that people consume.

Crandles said the other information Fraser Surrey Docks is directed to provide includes:

- An update of the review's air quality assessment.

- Further analysis of the composition of the coal being shipped, including metals and hydrocarbon makeup.

- More baseline information.

Asked to provide any letter to Fraser Surrey Docks detailing what the port wants, Crandles refused, saying there is no single document that would do that and that the requirements have been identified in a series of discussions.

The port says it won't accept more formal public or agency comments after receiving the new information.

Instead, it will then complete the project review and issue a decision.

There's no timeline for how long that may take but Crandles said the port is insisting that the extra work be thorough.

The Lower Mainland's chief medical health officers had been sharply critical of the environmental assessment, calling its health impact analysis inadequate.

The assessment, conducted for Fraser Surrey Docks by SNC-Lavalin, concluded there would be no significant adverse effects on human health or the environment, based on expected revisions to the project and mitigation measures.

The direct coal transfer facility would bring up to four million tonnes per year of U.S. coal by train through White Rock, Delta and Surrey, load it onto barges and send it down  the Fraser River and over to Texada Island, where it would be reloaded onto Asia-bound ships.

Climate change activists are at the forefront of those aiming to block the project and help keep U.S. thermal coal in the ground, forming a united front with American opponents of proposed coal ports in Washington and Oregon.

But also opposed are residents of White Rock, Surrey and New Westminster who fear increased coal dust from trains or the new terminal, as well as other potential impacts such as increased train frequency.

White Rock, Surrey, New Westminster and other municipalities either opposed the new terminal or expressed concern and Metro Vancouver's board last year voted to oppose it.

Critics fear the terminal could expand further after it gets initial approval.

Climate change activist Kevin Washbrook said the port should order more detailed health studies on the rail route from the point trains crosses the border from the U.S., as well as the barge route all the way to Texada Island.

The medical health officers had also criticized the scope, warning in December the review "will not be credible to the public unless it covers the entire geographic area in which this project will operate."

Washbrook also questions why detailed health studies didn't take place before the port last year approved a tripling of coal exports from Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver to more than 18 million tonnes per year.

"That decision was rushed through in six months," he said. "It's a double standard. If they're going to do more study in Surrey, Delta and White Rock as a result of concern there, the folks in Burnaby and North Vancouver deserve at least the same level of analysis."

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