A coal train passing by White Rock's pier. More coal will move on the BNSF line through White Rock and Delta to Surrey Fraser Docks if a new coal export terminal there is approved.

Coal threat report full of holes, health officers say

Port Metro Vancouver urged to relaunch probe of risks from trains, Fraser Surrey Docks terminal

The Lower Mainland’s chief medical health officers say a draft environmental impact assessment (EIA) fails to answer key questions about potential human health risks from a proposed new coal export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks.

The EIA report – ordered by Port Metro Vancouver in September in response to public concern about coal dust and other impacts – is slated for release Monday.

It has been reviewed by Fraser Health chief medical health officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder and his Vancouver Coastal counterpart, Dr. Patricia Daly, whose issued a joint eight-page stinging rebuke of its shortcomings.

“The report does not meet even the most basic requirements of a health-impact assessment,” their Nov. 13 letter said.

They said the draft EIA falls “well short of adequately addressing the human health impacts” and leaves them “no closer” to telling the public and local governments whether increased coal shipments will harm residents.

Daly and Van Buynder urged the port to try again, repeating an earlier offer to help design a proper assessment.

The health officers had pressed for months for a comprehensive health impact assessment prior to the port’s decision to order the EIA, which was conducted by consultants SNC Lavalin under Fraser Surrey Docks’ direction.

They describe SNC’s findings as “primarily a repackaging of work previously done by other consultants.”

Among the health officers’ criticisms:

• SNC didn’t critically assess previous air quality modeling assumptions that underpin the findings.

• Far more attention was paid to wildlife than potential human impacts.

• The assessment focused tightly on the terminal and failed to look at the full geographic area – from the trains running through White Rock and South Surrey, as well as at Texada Island, where coal is to be reloaded from barges to ships.

The letter notes population growth wasn’t adequately considered.

They were critical of the reliance of the EIA on two dated studies of coal dust exposure, despite the availability of more recent data. One study was performed in Agassiz in 1986 with outdated instruments and methods, they said, and its averaging of particulate concentrations over 24 hours could have masked dangerous short-term fluctuations.

They also conclude it was “not appropriate” to use a 1998 analysis that found no evidence of elevated levels of respiratory disease in Delta attributable to the Westshore coal terminal, because Tsawwassen residents were lumped in with those from further afield.

The EIA failed to determine whether the coal to be shipped is contaminated with mercury, lead, arsenic or other chemicals, the doctors say.

“This could be important information for assessing the potential impacts on food grown by residents and farms along the railway track leading to the FSD site.”

The letter flags the danger to residents in areas like Crescent Beach that may be cut off from emergency-vehicle access when trains block crossings, urging Fraser Surrey Docks to refer the issue to the B.C. Ambulance Service and local fire departments.

As for improvements to minimize coal dust escape – such as the port’s new requirement to use spray sealants on train loads – the health officers say the EIA simply accepted producer claims about the sealants’ effectiveness.

The port, in response to concerns that coal dust could waft to New Westminster, had promised to scrap plans for a temporary coal stockpile at the terminal. But the health officers wonder if  parking for an extra train – as is now planned – amounts to the same thing.

Another “significant deficiency” is lack of consideration of higher diesel emissions from trains, barges, trucks and vehicles idling at railway crossings.

That was surprising, Daly told Black Press Friday, because Levelton Consultants Inc. – who had done much of the prior work – also completed a 2007 study of lifetime cancer risk from diesel exposure in Metro Vancouver that should have been included.

“It really is very, very minimal and doesn’t go far enough in helping us answer questions from the public about whether or not there are going to be any increased risks,” she said.

Daly said the port has taken the position that as a federal agency, the health officers have no power under B.C.’s Public Health Act to order more study, but the port’s intent to seek an air quality permit from Metro Vancouver opens the door to more scrutiny.

Regional air quality and environment director Roger Quan said Thursday the EIA has “deficiencies” and Metro will likely order public hearings on Fraser Surrey Docks’ proposal as part of the permit review.

Port Metro Vancouver planning director Jim Crandles said the EIA will be posted on the port’s website and open to public comments for 30 days.

Crandles said he found it “curious” the health officers were giving interviews rather than just communicating their concerns to the port. He offered no specific response to criticisms in their letter.

“I’m curious at some of the conclusions they write based on the observations,” Crandles said. “We will take the time to carefully consider everything they have said.”

He said Port Metro Vancouver will refer the EIA to Health Canada for a second opinion.

Crandles said there’s no specific timeline for making a final decision on whether the terminal will proceed but said “there’s no question we’re nearing the end of the process.”

The $15-million Surrey terminal would initially handle four million tonnes per year of U.S.-mined thermal coal – adding one extra coal train per day – but could later expand to eight million tonnes.

It’s been under fire from an alliance of climate-change activists and residents concerned about health and local impacts.

Fraser Health Authority chief medical health officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder.

Fraser Surrey Docks EIA comments from chief medical health officers

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