Health officers hold their fire on coal port review

Van Buynder seeks details, keeps legal powers in reserve

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

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

Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer won’t yet say if he thinks an environmental impact assessment of a planned new coal export terminal in Surrey ordered last week by Port Metro Vancouver will be sufficient to answer health concerns.

Dr. Paul Van Buynder said he and counterpart Dr. Patricia Daly at the Vancouver Coastal health authority are pleased the port is now talking to them about risks from coal dust and trains.

But he said they’re reserving judgment as to whether the newly announced review goes far enough until they can learn more about it.

“If this doesn’t meet our needs, we will be saying so in due course,” Van Buynder said Tuesday.

The health officers had been calling for months for a comprehensive health impact assessment of the coal transfer facility proposed by Fraser Surrey Docks, which would bring an extra coal train per day through South Surrey and White Rock, and send barges laden with coal to Texada Island.

Van Buynder said he wants more information on the scope of the review, which Fraser Surrey Docks has commissioned consulting firm SNC Lavalin to lead.

Fraser Surrey officials said last week the review could be complete by the end of September, prompting coal activists to ridicule the two-week timeline as obviously inadequate.

Van Buynder said he and Daly were surprised to learn that some studies had already been commissioned for the review without their knowledge.

“We were somewhat surprised about the extent of the activity that we were unaware of,” he said, adding that makes it difficult for the moment to judge if the time frame is too short.

“If the bulk of the work has already happened, maybe they’re correct. If they’re just about to start, it’s never going to happen.”

Van Buynder had previously estimated a proper health impact assessment might delay construction by six to 12 months.

He also reiterated a previous statement that he could use his legal powers under the Public Health Act to compel the proponent to mitigate health risks to residents from coal dust, if he’s not ultimately satisfied with the steps taken by the port.

“It is a scenario that we continue to hold in reserve,” Van Buynder said.

The port also last week ordered new measures to guard against the escape of coal, including the re-spraying of trainloads with a dust-control agent and eliminating provisions for a contingency coal storage pile.