After years of struggle, the door has finally closed on a controversial U.S. thermal coal port on the Fraser River

(Photo courtesy of Eoghan Moriarty)

Six years ago, Dogwood hired me to start a new campaign. Will Horter, Dogwood’s founding Executive Director, handed me a copy of B.C.’s Dirty Secret: Big Coal & the Export of Global-Warming Pollution, told me two summer students would be showing up for work at my garage turned home office and directed me to “Go help Kevin”.

And with that, Dogwood joined the Beyond Coal movement. The flashpoint here in B.C. was the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks coal port, which would have exported eight million tonnes a year of dirty coal from the Powder River Basin in the U.S. through B.C. communities to be burned at power plants overseas.

Earlier this year, the Port of Vancouver (finally) officially cancelled the Fraser Surrey Docks coal port. We’d won!

From beginning to end, Dogwood’s coal campaign was small, but scrappy. The volunteers and supporters were some of the most passionate and engaged people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Our allies, from community groups to local governments, consistently inspired me. Together, we did a lot with a little, and now six years since Dogwood joined the fight, I can look back with pride and satisfaction with what we accomplished together.

Speaking of ‘together’

The ‘Kevin’ I was referring to was Kevin Washbrook of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC), a community leader and dad who, along with fellow board members Kathryn Harrison and Donald Gordon, pushed the issue of U.S. thermal coal exports into the limelight. They held dozens of community meetings across the region, and had a relentless media and Freedom of Information request strategy.

The two students were Alain Ndayishimiye and Arie Ross, who that summer went on to collect nearly 4,000 signatures for Dogwood’s nascent Beyond Coal campaign. (Special thanks to our Power Past Coal partners and the Sierra Club for graciously allowing us to use their trademark for our efforts north of the border).

Arie went on to become one of Dogwood’s first community organizers and then took the reigns of the Beyond Coal campaign in 2016. Hand-in-hand with the leaders, community groups and organizations also fighting Fraser Surrey Docks, she carried British Columbians through to a victory that was years in the making.

On January 30, 2019, Vancouver Port Authority cancelled the permit for Fraser Surrey Docks thermal coal terminal.

My favourite moments from the campaign

Here are just a few of the campaign highlights for me. If you had a connection to the campaign, I hope my list will trigger fond memories of your own!

  • Celebrating victory with cherished fellow-travelers on April 13, 2019, overlooking Fraser Surrey Docks from the Fraser River Discovery Centre. The New Westminster Quay was an iconic location throughout this campaign.
  • Communities & Coal, VTACC and Ecojustice taking the Vancouver Port Authority to court over its flawed approval of the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal.
  • Working with community activists to connect the dots from the coal port proposal to the Massey Bridge and Fraser River dredging proposals, and expanding our fight to protect farmland and expose corruption in the Massey Bridge mega project. As Richmond councillor Harold Steves said: “It has always been said that a small group of people can do some amazing things and this was certainly the case with Fraser Surrey Docks.”
  • Collectively convincing Metro Vancouver’s wastewater permitting department to take public comments on a permit application for the first time ever and then flooding them with 3,470 comments, including my favourite postcard of all time.
  • Arie’s “May of Action” in 2015 that saw 60 volunteers meet at (where else?) the New West Quay, then spread out to post public health warnings and gather 300 signatures opposing the coal port project.
  • Witnessing the raising of a totem pole carved by the Lummi House of Tears Carvers at Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Cultural and Recreation Centre in 2014. Lead artist Jewell James along with his family and allies took the pole on a healing journey through communities along the coal export route.
  • Sending thousands of Dogwood’s supporters to submit public comments on the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal through Eoghan Moriarty’s Real Port Hearings to force the Port Authority to act as a public regulator.
  • All the groups banding together to crash Port Metro Vancouver’s annual general meeting two years in a row. The Raging Grannies wrote a song for Port CEO Robin Silvester that still lives on in my heart.
  • Kids for Climate Action, dressed as elves, regaling Port leadership with anti-coal Christmas carols.
  • The rally VTACC, Communities & Coal, Dogwood and a dozen other groups sponsored on the Quay right outside that same Discovery Centre in October 2013. Not one, but two gentlemen had signs that read “Coltrane Yes, Coal Trains No”. One of them is now on New West’s city council.
  • The vote at Metro Vancouver’s board meeting putting the regional government on record opposing the expansion of coal exports in the Fraser estuary.

I am profoundly grateful to have helped stop the expansion of thermal coal exports on the west coast of North America, and to work with so many smart, fun, brilliant, relentless people along the way. There is no way to mention everyone here, but in addition to those I’ve mentioned above, here are just a few of the heroes of this fight:

  • Communities & Coal – The whole fight changed when Paula Williams came on the scene in late spring 2013. A concerned parent in Ocean Park, Paula joined forces with tireless volunteers like Stephanie Smith and Steven Farahar-Amidon, and within a few weeks had galvanized hundreds of volunteers. Over the summer, they gathered more than 10,000 petition signatures. Within the next year, they held meetings with dozens of politicians from all levels of government, convinced the Surrey city council to pass a motion opposing the FSD coal port proposal and got motions passed against the project at six school boards. Paula led Communities & Coal through every twist and turn of the permit fights and became one of the lead plaintiffs, alongside fellow Surrey resident Christine Dujmovich, in Ecojustice’s case challenging the port’s approval of the proposal.
  • Legal experts – Speaking of Ecojustice, shout out to lawyers Karen Campbell, Fraser Thompson and Harry Wruck who stood up to the Port’s deep coffers, arrogance and shady legal maneuvers, representing the public interest until the courts closed off the appeal this spring after FSD’s permit was cancelled.
  • Mavericks in government – From local anti-coal champions like Richmond’s Harold Steves, New Westminster’s Chuck Puchmayr (and the entire council, really!), Surrey’s Judy Villenueve, Vancouver’s Andrea Reimer and Powell River’s CaroleAnne Leishman, to local governments across the Lower Mainland, Salish Sea, Washington and Oregon. Together they stood with their constituents in the interest of public health and the climate, and used their jurisdiction to fight coal port proposals from Oregon to B.C. Many joined in the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, which joined forces to support each other through various regulatory processes for multiple project proposals.
  • Indigenous leaders, groups and governments – The Yakima Nation and others led the fight against two proposed coal ports along the Columbia River. The Lummi Nation challenged the proposed coal port in their territory in Washington State, and stood side-by-side with the Tsleil-Waututh in opposing coal and oil export projects in their territory. The Sechelt Band joined with local Sunshine Coast residents in opposing the FSD project that would have sent open coal barges through their territorial waters. The Musqueam First Nation took the port to court over its flawed approval process for FSD.
  • Healthcare professionals – Health impacts were the top concern for most people living along the coal export route, but were never taken seriously by regulators at the port or provincial government. Local health authorities took us seriously, though, and chief medical officers Paul VanBuynder of Fraser Health and Patricia Daly of Vancouver Coastal Health became our champions. Health experts Dr. Erica Frank, Dr. Frank James, Dr. Chris Carlsten and Dr. Tim Takaro lent their expertise and gave our volunteers countless hours helping advocate for a Health Impact Assessment of the coal port proposal.
  • Cross-border partners – Throughout this campaign Dogwood worked closely with American allies in the Power Past Coal coalition, which united groups all along the coal export route from mine to port. None of us would have succeeded without the leadership of Beth Doglio at Climate Solutions, Cesia Kearns at Sierra Club, Regna Merritt at Physicians for Social Responsibility, Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky At Columbia Riverkeeper and so, so many others. Together, we have stopped new U.S. thermal coal export proposals from Oregon up to B.C.
  • Countless community groups and community leaders – Wilderness Committee, New Westminster Environmental Partners, Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, Alliance for Democracy, BC Nurses Association, Kids for Climate Action were only a few of the 120 organizations and businesses that supported the campaign.
  • Dogwood volunteers, team leaders and summer students – Brenda Ross, Phyllis Ruthven, Scott VanDenham, Tom Moody, Fiana Liu, Grace Ji, Molly Henry, Matthea Weibe, Frances Ramsey, Lorisa Schouela and so many other Dogwooders fueled our campaign success.
It took all of us

Working together was key — on parallel strategies and tactics, sometimes probably driving each other crazy. It all mattered. The lawsuit, the Grumpy Cat postcards, the thousands of public comments, the media stunts, the lobbying, the municipal support, the research on Health Impact Assessments. Could we have won without any of these pieces? No.

As Paula Williams reflected after our victory party: “I think what made this movement so successful in part was that so many different groups came together in opposition of the project, working harmoniously together, but continued to do their own thing. I believe this approach is stronger than just one group, with one voice. I think the impression it gave both FSD and the Port was impactful.”

But it was a hell of a lot of work. What if we had been able to spend all of that time, energy, talent and money on building the world we wanted instead of having to fight off retrograde projects piece by piece? How transformational will it be now to channel our power into new ideas, creative solutions, reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours and building relationships for resilient communities in the face of climate change?

That’s where I want to go. But there are things getting in our way:

  • Government handouts to industry is propping up the economy of the past and robbing us of the opportunity for rapid climate action. That’s why we’re shifting our focus to end public money for coal, oil and gas.
  • Colonial laws. That’s why we’re supporting First Nations allies in fighting for mining reform.
  • The undue influence of Big Money. Special interests are fuelling right-wing populism, fear and disillusionment with the democratic system. That’s why we continue to mobilize everyday British Columbians to participate in elections and support efforts to expand voting rights–like the youth-led #Vote16 campaign.

For those who have been with us on the long path to victory on coal, I hope you’ll stick with us for these key fights ahead. For those of you just joining, I hope this little trip down memory lane shows that Dogwood’s current campaigns are really just the next chapter in a long and continuing quest for justice, climate action and a better B.C.