“It’s a polite revolution,” Paula Williams said.
The Ocean Park mother of two has guided her grassroots group, Communities and Coal, through what she terms an “intense” five months of learning about – and raising concerns with – Port Metro Vancouver’s proposal to expand the coal port at Fraser Surrey Docks – and the potential impact of increased coal train traffic through the region, including White Rock and South Surrey.
That phase culminated Dec. 17 with the deadline for sending comments to Port Metro Vancouver on its own environmental-impact assessment of the project – which has already received widespread opposition from Lower Mainland communities, and a scathing critique from Fraser Health Authority chief medical health officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder.
Whatever the result of the campaign, Williams said throwing a spotlight on Port Metro Vancouver and its public-consultation process has been worth it.
“Change has already happened – just with awareness alone,” she said. “There’s no going back now to the way things were with Port Metro Vancouver.”
Port Metro Vancouver has maintained throughout the process that expanding the coal port is in the public interest and that there has been ample consultation and opportunity for members of the public to make their views known.
But opponents like Williams charge that the public has been kept in the dark about full plans for lands in the Fraser River leased by the Port and what has been described as an “inappropriate” relationship between the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and lobbyists for the coal industry.
Williams said her family (she and her husband have a son, 6, and a daughter, 4) are far from fitting the ‘activist’ profile.
“We’re just your average family living in Ocean Park,” she said. “My husband is definitely not an activist, and myself, I’ve never ever done anything remotely like this – or anything political. I’ve never really been interested in anything like that before this.”
The family moved to the area from Vancouver in December of 2011, Williams added, noting that her husband’s business is connected with the movie industry and she had done online marketing before she became a full-time mom.
“We came here because it was quiet and peaceful and a good place to raise kids, and it was close to the beach,” she said. “Little did we know what was looming – although I think, quite honestly, this was all meant to be.
“Protesting anything – unless you’re part of an environmental group – seems un-Canadian,” Williams mused. “We’re passive, polite. We trust the government is looking out for us, even if that’s not always the case.”
For Williams, the catalytic moment was seeing a poster in Crescent Beach in June advertising a meeting opposing coal exports. Held at Ocean Park Hall, the June 19 meeting included input from guest speakers Eoin Madden of the Wilderness Committee, and Dr. Frank James, a member of Whatcom Docs, a group of physicians in Washington State – instrumental in blocking a similar coal-transfer facility there.
“We went to Safeway and handed out flyers at the parking lot,” Williams said of efforts to publicize the first get-together.
“We wondered how many people we were going to get – but we had 150 people in the hall, standing room only.”
Networking with and speaking in other communities, including Delta, was key in persuading people that the Communities and Coal initiative was not simply about White Rock and South Surrey NIMBY-ism, she said.
“We always knew this wasn’t just a South Surrey issue, and we tapped into one issue – health – that resonates through all communities.”
She added that Communities and Coal has also tried to steer clear of the more radical protest methods of some other groups opposing the coal-port expansion.
Numerous groups and organizations have weighed in against it, including Metro Vancouver, Vancity, the B.C. Nurses Union, and Vancouver Coastal Health although the United Steelworkers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have both submitted letters in support of the Port’s Environmental Impact Assessment.
“The Delta School Board came out opposing it, and the Vancouver School Board has asked for a health-impact assessment,” Williams said. “Literally every major city in the Lower Mainland has either opposed or expressed concern about the proposal – and when has that ever happened?
“It’s amazing how far we’ve come in only five months.”