For more than two years now Dogwood Initiative has been quietly gearing up to take on another fossil fuel threat to our air, land and water: coal. While our 2011 report B.C.’s Dirty Secret detailed the extent of the province’s mining and export of metallurgical coal for steel-making, we were also paying attention to the largely unchecked growth in exports of U.S.-mined thermal coal (burned to create electricity) increasingly being brought by train to Lower Mainland ports and shipped out to Asian markets.

This increase in export capacity comes under the jurisdiction of Port Metro Vancouver – a federally delegated port authority with little public oversight and accountability. Operating essentially as a corporation, most of the port’s board of directors are appointed by the federal transport ministry based largely on nominations from port-related industries. The arrangement has frequently been referred to as a “fox guarding the chicken coop” scenario.

Expansion proposals spark outcry

While the port had allowed Westshore Terminals at Deltaport to expand its coal-handling facilities with little notice, let alone consultation of its neighbours, two new proposals sparked an outcry last year. Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver applied to expand its existing coal facilities and Fraser Surrey Docks, scrambling for new business since the 2008 economic downturn, cooked up a scheme to build a new facility at its river-based terminal. Each would bring thermal coal from Wyoming and Montana by train through White Rock, Surrey, Delta and Burnaby to be shipped out to Asia. Adding a new twist, Fraser Surrey Docks proposed to transport coal on open barges down the river and up the Strait of Georgia to Texada Island, where it would be loaded onto ships bound for Asia.

This time, largely thanks to the efforts of our friends at Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, people took note. Dogwood Initiative supporters joined hundreds of others in North Vancouver, White Rock and across the Lower Mainland calling on the port to properly consult the public – especially in affected communities – ahead of their permitting decisions. Public outrage grew in January when the port approved the Neptune expansion, ignoring the concerns of residents. Knowing they couldn’t get away with it again, the port responded to the call for public participation by asking Fraser Surrey Docks – the corporate proponent of the other coal facility – to hold open houses.

Thrown in the deep end

That’s where I came in. Dogwood hired me as a full-time coal campaigner in May and there hasn’t been a dull moment yet. First, in early May, NDP leader Adrian Dix made a strong campaign statement, calling for public hearings on coal export expansion projects.  Then, in the same week we were bowled over by the provincial election results, Fraser Surrey Docks announced it would hold its open houses the following week. That week I found myself speaking to the regional government (Metro Vancouver) environment and parks committee, which subsequently forwarded a motion to the full board asking for better coordination with the port on environmental assessment, better assessment of health impacts from coal expansion projects, and express opposition to further coal shipments in the Fraser River Estuary.

In Week 3 on the job, working with Voters Taking Action on Climate Change and the Wilderness Committee, we decided rather than legitimize Fraser Surrey Dock’s public relations stunts we would pull together a delegation to Port Metro Vancouver’s headquarters on May 23. We brought with us copies of more than 2,500 letters and petition signatures previously submitted to the port expressing concern or opposition to coal port expansion and asking for better public process. Despite an advance request, no one from the port’s board of directors was there to receive us. But well over 200 people – residents and leaders from across the region –  accompanied us on the delegation along with several TV and newspaper reporters.

About Laura

I am a parent of two beautiful little boys and am a life-long west-coaster with a background in organizing and advocacy for social change. I’ve spent the last few years with my family while getting a master’s degree in Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University with brief stints as a research assistant and working on shareholder activism at the Global Unions Committee on Workers’ Capital.

Before moving to Canada in 2008 I spent seven years in San Diego, Calif., – first as a community organizer for a municipal living wage campaign, then as a political organizer on a progressive mayoral campaign and finally as a campaign director at Environmental Health Coalition, a local environmental justice organization.

I am ecstatic that Dogwood Initiative and I have found each other as Dogwood’s approach reflects the values and lessons my experiences have taught me: that nothing matters more than sustaining our most fundamental resources – our air, our land, our water and ourselves – and that the only way to do so is by building power with people.

It seems like a match made in heaven… and it’s been one hell of a honeymoon!

In Week 4, the city of New Westminster, frustrated that Fraser Surrey Docks and Port Metro Vancouver had refused its request to have an open house there, organized its own town hall meeting on the coal terminal proposal along with MPs Peter Julian and Fin Donnelly as well as MLA-elect Judy Darcy. Nearly 300 people packed an auditorium to hear panelists, which included a representative of the port’s planning department (who later refused to take questions from the audience) and Dr. Paul VanBuynder, Chief Medical Officer for Fraser Health Authority. VanBuynder called on the port to conduct a full health impact assessment before deciding on the permit approval.

Concerned citizens dominate port AGM

In Week 5 on the job, Port Metro Vancouver held its Annual General Meeting, a public event promising an opportunity to ask questions of board members and senior port staff.  Concerned residents dominated the question and answer period. The port’s CEO Robin Silvester repeatedly rebuffed calls for public hearings on Fraser Surrey Docks saying there was “no trigger” for hearings and that he was “not authorized” to call them. He also refused to commit to a health impact assessment.

While the port’s continued refusal to take responsibility and listen to the public was disappointing, public pressure was intensifying and gained extensive media coverage every week. In fact, in response to this groundswell of action, Metro Vancouver (the regional district for 24 local authorities, including 22 municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nation) had decided to set aside its meeting on June 14 for the sole purpose of hearing public delegations ahead of its decision on the environment and parks committee motion.

Local government opposition grows

Metro Vancouver, like the city of New Westminster, had stepped into the public consultation void left by the port. New West’s council had passed a resolution opposing the Fraser Surrey proposal and Vancouver, White Rock and Surrey had officially expressed concern over local impacts and the decision-making process – but were there enough votes on the Metro Vancouver board to pass a motion essentially opposing the project?

The 40-person board is made up of mayors and councillors from every municipality in the region and is weighted by population societies like Vancouver and Surrey have more officials on the board than Port Moody, for example.

Concerned citizens had been writing to Metro Vancouver’s board for weeks urging support for the motion. A week before the vote I sent an e-mail to Dogwood supporters asking them to write to the board as well. In
less than 24 hours, nearly 100 of you responded in the end, more than 150 letters were written.

It was a full house when I arrived on the morning of the June 14 and 46 delegates had signed up to speak. While these included the port’s CEO Silvester and a handful of Surrey Fraser Docks supporters like the Coal Alliance of Canada, the overwhelming majority of speakers expressed opposition to coal port expansion and urged passage of the motion. Board members heard from residents of New Westminster, North Vancouver, Delta, Surrey, White Rock and Vancouver. They heard from academic experts in political and health sciences; ecologists and environmentalists; parents and teachers and, perhaps most notably, from Sam Harrison and Kimberly Wong of the inspiring group Kids For Climate Action.

After nearly seven hours of speakers, spirited debate and a slow attrition of board members, the vote was swift: of the 27 officials left in the room, only five voted against the motion. Metro Vancouver has now officially taken a stand against the Fraser Surrey Docks coal facility.

Metro Van’s air quality jurisdiction could hold clout

Perhaps just as important, the motion also supports Fraser Health Authority’s call for a health impact assessment and requests further information from the port before considering Fraser Surrey Docks’ application for an air emissions permit. While the port will decide whether to approve the project permit for Fraser Surrey Docks, Metro Vancouver has air quality jurisdiction and Fraser Surrey Docks must acquire an emissions permit in order to operate the proposed facility. In fact, Neptune Terminals must also apply for an amendment to its Metro Vancouver air emissions permit in order to undertake its expansion project.

Phew! No wonder I’m tired.  But mostly, I am inspired.  Dogwood is joining a truly grassroots campaign that is already changing the way decisions are made about our future. We fully intend to build upon that success to help grow a sustainable, powerful movement against coal export expansion on the west coast of North America and reclaim decision-making power for residents and local communities. Port Metro Vancouver still has the final say over giving Fraser Surrey Docks the go-ahead, but we’re helping empower citizens to raise their concerns and, with that, raise the risk of the port losing its social licence.