New coal review bypasses health authorities

Dr. Paul Van Buynder is vice-president of public health and chief medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority. - File
Dr. Paul Van Buynder is vice-president of public health and chief medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority.
— image credit: File

Fraser Health's chief medical health officer is cautioning Port Metro Vancouver not to plow ahead with a final decision on a new coal terminal in Surrey without first letting him review new research on the project's potential impacts on human health.

Dr. Paul Van Buynder said he's glad the port on Wednesday ordered proponent Fraser Surrey Docks to answer more questions about possible health impacts, but he is disappointed there will be no further formal comment allowed on the findings, which won't be made public ahead of a decision or shared with the health authorities.

"I believe this work should be done in consultation with health experts and in a fashion transparent to the concerned public," Van Buynder said in an emailed statement.

"It is important for the credibility of any further review and the decision outcome that the process is not undertaken by the proponent in isolation of public health."

The port ordered the additional work Wednesday after criticism of an environmental impact assessment commissioned by Fraser Surrey Docks.

In December, Van Buynder and Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly declared the completed assessment inadequate and listed multiple problems with it.

Many civic politicians and residents groups have been critical of the proposed terminal, which would increase the number of trains carrying coal through White Rock, South Surrey and Delta, though the project has been supported by some, including the Surrey Board of Trade.

The extra work is expected to focus on coal dust and train diesel emissions, but it's unclear how long that will take or when a final decision by the port authority is likely.

Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester said he's "very, very surprised" at Van Buynder's comments.

"We've listened to all of the input he's given us," Silvester said. "We've considered it very carefully. And we'll be answering all of his questions that are relevant to our scope."

Many of the issues raised by the health officers are beyond the port's jurisdiction, he added.

Asked how it can be appropriate not to refer significant new findings back to the health officers for review ahead of a decision, Silvester said the port already has a very good understanding of their concerns.

"They've asked their questions. They've set out very clearly what their concerns are. And we're now making sure those concerns are being answered," he said.

Silvester said the port has hired consultants Golder and Associates to act as an independent third party to advise on the completion of the environmental assessment and analyze new findings.

The latest delay is the third time public concern has prompted the port board to step back from an imminent decision on the proposed new coal terminal, which would bring up to four million tonnes per year of U.S. thermal coal to Surrey by train and ship it down the Fraser River by barge to Texada Island for transfer to larger ships.

When medical health officers first raised concerns with the coal terminal proposal in late 2012, the port declined to give them a formal role in the project assessment, instead promising to explore what process could involve health authorities to help guide assessments of future projects.

"What we want to do is set up the right sort of dialogue, separate from the project process, because those are broader questions, to have a conversation with the health officers about how to best answer those questions," Silvester said last June after Van Buynder and Daly reiterated concerns.

Van Buynder said nothing came of that offer other than one discussion with a port-hired consultant several months ago.

"I never heard another thing about it," Van Buynder said in an interview Thursday. "We were hopeful when the consultant was put on that it meant the port recognized deficiencies in their processes. We're concerned that we've heard nothing further since then."

Silvester said the port has had frequent contact with the health officers.

"Again, I'm surprised by that," Silvester responded.

Black Press asked if the port's approach to public and agency consultations for the coal terminal review has jeopardized the social licence it needs to succeed over the long term.

"If we look back at the process, there are things we would do differently if looking at it again," Silvester said. "We probably could have started out involving more consultation at the early stages."

But he predicts the information being assembled will justify a final decision.

"We're very confident we'll be able to answer the concerns and make a decision – either yes or no – that will be the right decision based on good, robust information."

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