Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer says he could use his legal powers to force a proposed new coal terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks to keep its promises to protect residents from coal dust.
“I can’t stop the approval,” Van Buynder said in an interview. “But if I demonstrate that there is a health risk, then I have powers under the Public Health Act to force them to mitigate that.”
He’s used the legislation twice in the last year to force a Port Coquitlam herbal remedy maker to retract misleading advertising and to impose water chlorination in Chilliwack.
In the case of the Surrey coal terminal, he says a permit approval should require ongoing testing near homes and schools for coal dust and other particulate.
If actual levels turn out to be higher than projected in computer models, he said, coal shipments would stop until changes are made to cut emissions to acceptable levels.
He argues that provision plus the health impact assessment should be backed by the port and terminal because it would reassure residents.
The coal industry “may well be correct” that coal poses no health risk, he said, but that gives no comfort to the public.
“I don’t know if there is a health risk,” Van Buynder said. “What I’m saying is we want more information before we sign off.”
The new terminal would initially handle four million tonnes of coal a year, less than 10 per cent of the port’s current coal-handling capacity.
Van Buynder acknowledged coal has been shipped through Metro Vancouver for four decades, but said it’s a first at Fraser Surrey Docks, which is closer to homes than Westshore Terminals at Deltaport.
Besides the terminal, there are concerns about dust from trains and from the open barges sailing on the Fraser River.
Fraser Surrey Docks has indicated it could stockpile coal in a two-acre area on a limited basis for up to eight days a year, Van Buynder noted.
He said there have been local problems with coal dust – a freak wind blew dust airborne at Westhore last year prompting the firm to spend $8.5 million on better dust suppression.
Train concerns to be considered in the health assessment include not just escaping coal dust but diesel fumes and blocked emergency access to cut-off neighbourhoods.
Van Buynder said “amenity” or lifestyle impacts should also be part of a full look at the risks and benefits.
“If you buy yourself a nice place on the water in White Rock then you have some expectation about what that means and whether or not you’re going to see lots of noise and coal dust and all of the rest of it.”
However, Van Buynder said it’s likely his legal powers are limited to health risks directly linked to coal, and don’t extend to general train traffic issues.
He said he’s not aware of any local testing of coal dust impacts from trains.
In 1998, an environmental health officer with the local health unit concluded it was “unlikely” South Delta residents faced any health risks from Westshore coal dust.
Coal Alliance spokesman Alan Fryer maintains the industry is safe and highly regulated by eight different agencies.
“A lot of people are reacting as if this is something new,” he said. “We’ve been doing it safely and responsibly and we’ve been getting better and better at it.”
Transport Canada classifies coal as non-toxic and not a dangerous good.
The Coal Alliance is urging Metro Vancouver directors to reject a motion opposing new coal exports at a public meeting on the issue slated for Friday.
While coal dust has been raised as a local issue, many climate change activists aim to block the burning of more U.S. coal to rein in carbon emissions.
Port Metro Vancouver planning director Jim Crandles said he wants to know if medical health officers have a specific health concern they think should trigger a health impact assessment or if they want it done based on public sentiment alone.