There can be no denying last Friday’s 21-4 vote by Metro Vancouver’s board to oppose a proposed new coal-export terminal in Surrey is the strongest manifestation yet of a groundswell of public opinion against the terminal and the increased coal-train traffic that would result.
But one should be cautious of over-emotional arguments and grandstanding by members of organizations that have no real power to affect the outcome.
It is notable that Lower Mainland cities are asked to accept something that some U.S. cities are rejecting. And it may well be time, as opponents assert, for the country as a whole to draw the line environmentally and voice resistance to fossil fuels, such as thermal coal.
However, by dragging in too many non-germane arguments against this specific plan, opponents run the risk of devaluing legitimate objections, making them all seem spurious by association.
Yes, more trains in Crescent Beach and White Rock add noise and limit access to otherwise seemingly idyllic communities. And yes, on a much grander scale, coal-powered energy in China leaves behind a huge carbon footprint, with its pollution felt a continent away in not-intangible smoke clouds.
But worrying about such hyper-local or excessively broad issues is not the mandate of Port Metro Vancouver as the financially self-sufficient port authority serving this area.
Opponents of coal should be wary of a pending health-impact assessment by Fraser Health’s chief medical officer. While this might seem positive, it is a card that can be played only once. If the findings are less than conclusive that coal-carrying trains pose a real risk, it will discredit other public-health concerns related to coal, and they will be all the harder to argue in future.
Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester has already seized on the threat that the Surrey terminal could be closed down if health concerns are proven. This, he claims, is de facto proof that coal-handling procedures, to this point, have been little cause for concern.
In reality, imported coal has been handled in B.C. for decades with far less stringent controls. The coal at the proposed terminal would not be piled in the open, and port, coal industry and union reps remain adamant that coal dust can be suppressed so that it poses no risk.
It behooves those who doubt this to offer even more convincing proof, rather than simply blowing smoke by resorting to easily dismissed emotional appeals.