More coal trains would head up the BNSF rail line if a new coal export terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks is approved.

Coal export plans criticized by health groups

Advocates urge port to put brakes on new terminals

A campaign to block a proposed increase in coal exports through Metro Vancouver has gained the backing of public health advocates.

An open letter from three groups and numerous individual health professionals calls on Port Metro Vancouver to freeze its consideration of applications for a new coal terminal at Fraser Surrey Docks and to expand an existing one at Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver pending further study.

The B.C. Lung Association, Public Health Association of B.C. and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment cited health risks from coal dust and diesel pollution from more trains rolling through the region.

“You have an ethical obligation to postpone any decisions on these two coal export proposals until you have developed a broader and more inclusive decision making process which is capable of evaluating the cumulative regional health impacts,” the letter says.

Critics of the planned coal terminal expansions – which would increase coal shipments through the port by 14 million tonnes per year or 35 per cent – object to the port’s ability to approve them internally, without the consent of any city or other agency.

Much criticism has come from climate activists who don’t want U.S. coal to get to market in Asia.

But signatories to the letter say local health impacts could be significant.

They project at least three more coal train return trips through the region daily, up from six now.

And they say the BNSF railway through White Rock and Delta to the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks terminal passes within a kilometre of 10 schools as well as various daycare centres and seniors’ homes.

Opponents of coal exports staged a protest outside the port’s downtown Vancouver headquarters Tuesday.

Robin Silvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, said concerns over coal dust risks are “completely legitimate questions” that will be addressed through the public review process underway.

Whether climate change concerns should quash Canadian exports of coal is a “legitimate debate” to have at a more national level, Silvester said, but not one to have with the port at the permitting level when coal exports have been underway here “for a very long time.”

He likened it to a homeowner applying to extend his house being told the application won’t be considered because “we’re going to stop and think about the sustainability of the forest industry.”

Silvester said most of the coal exported through Port Metro Vancouver is metallurgical coal – a critical ingredient in steelmaking – but critics note the planned terminal projects would boost exports of thermal coal that would be burned for power.