On Jan. 23, Port Metro Vancouver approved a proposal to expand a North Vancouver coal export facility’s capacity to enable 18 million metric tonnes of coal to be exported each year – ignoring health concerns raised by health authorities and citizens in hundreds of

Why all the sudden fuss about coal? While Vancouver publicly works to become the world’s greenest city, Port Metro Vancouver is quietly becoming one of North America’s largest exports of coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel.

This latest approval alone will bring the health risks of increased diesel fumes to North Vancouver and the respiratory health concerns of coal dust from trains and stockpiles near homes. It’s no wonder neighbouring residents fear their property values will drop by 33 per cent.

The B.C. Lung Association, the Public Health Association of B.C. and the Coastal and Fraser Health Authorities have all raised concerns about the proposal – not to mention that NASA scientist James Hansen has said “coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.”

The mandate of the Port Authority is to “operate with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians,” yet a poll conducted by Justason Market Intelligence in the fall found 64 per cent of British Columbians had never heard of plans to expand coal exports from B.C. ports.

On the day of the approval, Port Metro Vancouver’s President and CEO Robin Sylvester wrote an open letter to Dogwood Initiative purporting to respond to the health, safety and climate concerns raised in the hundreds of letters submitted to the port before the deadline. In essence, Port Metro Vancouver said coal dust, diesel fumes and other health concerns are not a problem and that global warming is not their problem.

Regardless of what the port claims, the facts about Neptune’s impacts are clear:

  • The expansion means up to 10 coal trains will travel through affected neighbourhoods each day emitting diesel fumes and coal dust, both of which have known health impacts;
  • Each train car loses 500 to 1,000 pounds of dust en route from mine to port, despite the use of sealant;
  • The Neptune expansion means up to 18 million metric tonnes of coal will be stockpiled on site, increasing already problematic coal dust problems in surrounding neighbourhoods in North Vancouver;
  • The additional capacity will exacerbate preexisting traffic problems in surrounding neighbourhoods in North Vancouver.
  • When the 18 million tonnes of metallurgical coal is burned to make steel, more than 37 million tonnes of heat trapping pollution will be pumped in to the atmosphere.

None of these issues were addressed in the port’s approval.

In fact, Sylvester illustrated the port’s bias by dismissing people’s health and climate concerns as “form letters,” while not applying the same level of scrutiny to letters in support of the proposal.

Research by our colleagues at Voters Taking Action Against Climate Change (VTACC) uncovered that “360 of 375 comments in support of coal exports were identical, and were sent to the Port Authority on a single day… exactly one week before the decision was released.”

In the port’s public statement, Sylvester failed to point out that virtually all (96 per cent) comments in favour of coal export were “form letters.” In contrast, VTACC found that only “378 of 640 comments (59 per cent) opposed to coal exports were identified by the Port Authority as examples of one of five different “form letters.”

In response to criticism of its inadequate consultation process, does the port make it more transparent and accessible? No. Do they mandate independent environmental assessments and public hearings? No. Instead the port decides to hire a PR firm “to develop and implement a communications program that will increase awareness and understanding of the port and its role in facilitating Canada’s trade, primarily amongst residents of its bordering communities in the Lower Mainland.” Perhaps the money could have been better spent actually talking, and listening, to people.

Nothing illustrates the port’s inadequate public consultation more than comparing it to the extensive process happening just south of the border in evaluating a proposed coal port at Cherry Point in Washington. For that proposal, nine public hearings were held, some as far as two hours away. In contrast, there were no public hearings in Vancouver and while Neptune claims to have sent out 1,000 letters, Dogwood Initiative was contacted by residents living within sight of the proposal who had never heard of the project until they saw our ad or received a recorded call from us.

Port Metro Vancouver’s role in approving coal and oil exports highlights the urgent need for a new approach: a decision-making process that truly incorporates local communities and First Nations; a process that promotes rather than undermines local government’s attempts to be world leaders in sustainability; and approval decisions that balance the potential benefits of expanded trade with the potential local and global consequences of that trade. Ultimately, we need a decision-making process that ensures the needs of real people, not distant corporate and political interests, are driving policy.

Believe it or not, there is a silver lining in the approval. By fast-tracking the approval, while ignoring legitimate health and safety concerns and disregarding health and municipal officials, the port authority was so dismissive that reasonable people can’t help but now see the port as a major problem.

It reminds me of the concept of “dumb wins and smart losses” discussed by Matt Price in his thought-provoking survey of Canadian politics: “Revenge of the Beaver: Building Power in the Age of the Canadian Culture War.”

One of Price’s insights is that citizens like us can “win while losing” if the loss helps build power over time. This could be a “dumb win” for the port if we organize and make it a “smart loss” for us.

Every good story needs a villain and the port’s CEO and directors just nailed their audition. Through their heavy-handed action, Port Metro Vancouver leaders have made themselves the target of directly affected communities, municipal and health leaders, and the growing number of people willing to take action on global warming.