It may be the closest anyone gets to a full public hearing on a controversial proposal to build a new coal export terminal in Surrey.
Metro Vancouver’s board voted Friday to throw open its June 14 meeting to delegations on the topic and officials from Port Metro Vancouver and Fraser Surrey Docks will be there to answer questions.
Critics of the plan to increase coal shipments by rail and then barge have zeroed in on the failure of the port – the final deciding body – to adequately consider opposition, which includes those who want U.S. coal to stay in the ground and not add to climate-warming emissions as well as neighbourhood opponents who either fear escaping coal dust or don’t want more trains rolling by.
“I think it’s ironic it’s come down to regional government being the one who’s trying to organize public hearings around this issue when the port authority is the public agency with the power to make the decisions,” said Kevin Washbrook of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.
He said the port is abdicating its regulatory role by not organizing hearings itself, adding it should still do so.
Port Metro Vancouver has so far let Fraser Surrey Docks – the proponent – lead open houses into the proposal, which would export an additional four million tonnes of coal per year.
It’s far from a massive jump in the region’s existing or approved coal handling capacity – an increase of less than 10 per cent.
But opponents like Washbrook say it amounts to a new terminal that once open could expand further. They want B.C. to forge a common front with coal activists in the U.S., who have so far blocked new coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon.
Metro’s environment committee has already debated the issue and its resolution to oppose increased coal shipments – deferred on Friday – would be voted on by the full board after the delegations are heard.
“It will look and feel like a public hearing,” said Metro board chair Greg Moore, who expects a long list of speakers on June 14. Anyone wanting to speak must make a request 48 hours in advance.
Although some civic leaders are making their opinions known, cities and even the regional district have no jurisdiction over the terminal, apart from an air emissions permit Metro would be expected to issue.
Surrey council is split between councillors who oppose the new terminal and those who either back it or see it as an unproductive debate given the city’s lack of power.
“For me, if two states in the U.S.A. have said ‘No’ I don’t understand why B.C. would be contemplating it,” Surrey Coun. Barinder Rasode said, while Coun. Judy Villeneuve said she’s “100 per cent against it.”
Coun. Linda Hepner said she found the case for the new terminal persuasive but also noted residents in Crescent Beach have legitimate concerns about more trains blocking their access.
White Rock Coun. Larry Robinson said he wants to first see an expected opinion from the Fraser Health Authority’s chief medical officer.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she’s close to supporting the project, adding she has far fewer concerns than she did initially.
“This is nothing new,” she said, noting Deltaport has hosted a coal export terminal for decades.
Jackson does think incoming coal trains should be sprayed down again with dust suppressants just before they enter B.C.
And she is also seeking better data on the air emissions from the region’s existing coal export operations ahead of a board vote.
Metro Vancouver officials confirmed their mobile air quality testing unit could be used to compare emissions from passing coal trains to ambient conditions, but gave no indication as to whether such testing will actually be ordered.
New Westminster politicians fear coal dust could blow across the Fraser River to their city from the new Surrey terminal, even though the coal is to be offloaded from rail cars within an enclosed building, unlike the open air handling of coal at Deltaport.
They’re also concerned dust may fly off the open barges that will carry the coal to Texada Island.