COLUMN: Port debate has many sides

Interest groups have say in Metro Vancouver coal-train discussion

Metro Vancouver has waded into the debate over the export of Wyoming coal from Fraser Surrey Docks.

Unlike some past occasions, this is an issue that actually calls for Metro Vancouver input, as the regional district has responsibility for air quality.

There are many perspectives on this coal-export plan, which as noted in this space several months ago has a number of peculiar features.

The most curious is a plan to ship it by rail to Fraser Surrey Docks and then by barge to Texada Island, where it will be unloaded and then loaded again onto larger ocean-going ships.

Fraser Surrey Docks is capable of handling ocean-going ships — up to a certain draft. Is it not possible to load coal directly onto these ships in Surrey, even if the ships are somewhat smaller than those that load coal at Roberts Bank? Wouldn’t that save a substantial amount of money?

And thus far, I have heard nothing about what Texada Island residents feel about being a link in the coal-shipping network. Historically, residents of the islands off the B.C. coast have been among the most passionate defenders of the natural environment.

At the Metro Vancouver hearing, which took more than six hours, the arguments basically broke into three categories.

One group of opponents are against any fossil-fuel extraction, and see trying to shut this proposal down as one step towards eventually stopping oil and coal extraction of all kinds.

In some ways, they are the most hypocritical, because each of them use fossil fuels every day in one form or another. There are not enough alternatives available at this point in time.

However, their arguments about coal being used to produce electricity in China and other Asian countries are important and relevant. Coal-fired electric plants are the most polluting type of plants, and China produces far more electricity this way than any other country.

We should be encouraging the use of alternate, less-polluting fuels — such as LNG from B.C.

The second group are residents who are directly affected by the proposed coal port. Some live in areas like Crescent Beach and White Rock, and are concerned about coal dust and increased train traffic in their communities. Others live near the port, which unlike Roberts Bank is located quite close to many homes.

A large pile of coal at the port will certainly have some effect on neighbouring homes. It will be impossible to completely eliminate coal dust.

As some people pointed out, coal dust can travel a fair distance. I’ve seen it on the exterior of homes in Cloverdale. These homes were more than a kilometre from the rail line, which trains use to haul coal to Roberts Bank.

The third group are those who favour the proposal – mostly from the business community and the port itself.

The port is under-utilized and needs additional economic activity.

Part of that is due to the restrictions on the size of ships that can call there.

Additional port jobs would be good-paying ones and would be a welcome boost to the Surrey economy.

Others from that side of the argument have concerns about B.C. environmental organizations trying to shut down any controversial exports. This is a very relevant concern. The anti-development forces have been stacked up against oil pipeline proposals, particularly Northern Gateway, and the NDP flip-flop in the provincial election on the Kinder Morgan pipeline is widely assumed to have cost the party a victory.

While Metro Vancouver has now voted against the coal-export plan, ultimately it will be up to Port Metro Vancouver to go ahead.

The port has heard from the various interest groups and now must decide whether to proceed or not.

It won’t be an easy decision.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.