Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall is wading into the debate on increased coal exports through Metro Vancouver, backing calls for a health impact assessment on a proposed new terminal in Surrey.
He spoke out Wednesday, a day after Vancouver council voted 9-2 to ban coal movement, handling or storage within Vancouver city limits as a pre-emptive strike against any similar proposal.
“I think it would be eminently sensible,” Kendall said when asked by Black Press if he supports the requests from Lower Mainland medical health officers for a health impact assessment.
He noted Dr. Patricia Daly of Vancouver Coastal and Dr. Paul Van Buynder of Fraser Health have raised potential risks to the public from air quality degradation and coal transportation issues related to the Fraser Surrey Docks proposed terminal, which could see eight million tonnes of coal per year loaded from trains onto barges.
“I think it makes sense to ask the proponent to do the studies,” Kendall said.
“I think it would be a useful thing to do because it might indicate risks that can be mitigated. If you can demonstrate you can mitigate the risks it might reassure folks.”
Kendall denied he has authority under the B.C. Public Health Act to order a health impact assessment – a City of Vancouver staff report said he can mandate one.
“I don’t have that power,” he said.
But Kendal noted the province delegates its air quality authority to Metro Vancouver, so the regional district has considerable power to require further study at the permitting stage.
Port Metro Vancouver is expected to rule at any time on the Fraser Surrey Docks terminal.
It previously approved an expansion of Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver to export more coal, but the terminal operator there has yet to make a formal application to Metro Vancouver for an air quality permit.
Metro Vancouver Air Quality District Director Ray Robb confirmed he could – if he decides it’s necessary – require a health impact assessment either in advance of an air quality permit decision or as a condition of granting one.
Vancouver’s revision of its zoning bylaw to block any coal exports there came in response to industry inquiries about the potential to ship coal from private waterfront land in the northeast corner of the city.
Politicians from the Kootenays spoke out at the council meeting in defence of the coal industry, arguing it supports thousands of jobs in their region alone.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves, who has fought the port’s incursions into agricultural land, said he doubts the City of Vancouver’s ban has real teeth to block a new coal terminal there.
The port has taken the position it can supersede the Agricultural Land Reserve if necessary to develop new terminals, Steves noted, and he said it could likewise use its federal powers to override Vancouver zoning.
Technically, private land proposed for a terminal would be subject to zoning rules.
“But the owner can just flip the land to the port and as soon as the port owns it, they can use their prerogative,” Steves said.
Vancouver could mount a legal challenge – as Richmond has vowed to do if the port actually moves to develop ALR land it has bought.
“It’s an iffy situation whether you’d win or lose,” Steves said. “You’d surely win the court of public opinion though.”
Kevin Washbrook of the group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change said it’s “totally appropriate” for Vancouver council to use all possible tools to block coal exports in light of the port’s refusal to broadly consult or agree to health studies.
“It is also important that it sends a strong message,” he said.
Vancouver is just the latest city in the region to signal disapproval with increased coal exports.
Metro Vancouver’s board last month passed a motion opposing more coal shipments from the Fraser River estuary – a motion aimed at the proposed new $15-million coal transfer terminal in Surrey.
Surrey council has not yet taken a position on the issue.
Opposition to the new terminal includes residents from White Rock to New Westminster who fear coal dust or more train traffic, as well as climate change activists who want all U.S. thermal coal kept in the ground.
Westshore Terminals at DeltaPort handles the bulk of the coal moving through Metro Vancouver.