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Battle over coal heats up in Metro Vancouver

Coal awaits export at Port Metro Vancouver: photo from Port Metro Vancouver website

Maureen Coroliuc has firsthand experience of the impact uncovered coal trains rumbling past her White Rock tea shop can have.

“It’s a dark black dust. Dust is usually brown. Ours is black, a dirty, dusty black.”

Just metres from the railway line, Coroliuc’s Angelic Teapot is an oasis of tranquility along busy Marine Drive in White Rock. But Coroliuc’s daily chores include the less-than-celestial burden of battling coal dust.

“We have to dust more often the shelves and top of tea tins. We wipe down cabinets and the cloths are literally black, and that is not coming off the street traffic. It’s coal dust. We need to have our exterior windows cleaned professionally twice a month. I have also developed environmental allergies that I did not have before.”

Coroliuc’s anguish over coal dust is a familiar lament along rail lines that intertwine the Pacific Northwest. It also reflects parallel concerns raised by an Oregon county south of the border. Multnomah County which includes Portland is facing a potential surge in coal train traffic.

Washington and Oregon are wrestling with the potential social, economic and health impacts of three proposed massive coal export facilities that would mean a major increase in coal train traffic through local communities.

Last month, a “Health Assessment and Evaluation” on coal transport was released by the Multnomah County Health Department. Multnomah has a major rail line running through most of the county. The report says after examining legitimate health concerns raised over increased coal dust, there is little scientific evidence that anyone has actually looked into it or examined the issue closely.

“There are well-established health risks of exposure to coal dust in occupational settings,” says the report.

“However, there are significant gaps in the scientific literature regarding how much coal dust is shed by trains carrying coal, how far coal dust travels from rail lines, and the health effects of inhaling this environmental coal dust. This makes it difficult to conclusively state what the local impacts of coal dust might be.”

The report does conclude that “coal dust may travel approximately 500m to 2km from the train tracks....” It also indicates that some populations in Multnomah Country would be vulnerable to health risks of coal transportation, particularly those living close to rail lines carrying coal.

British Columbia may be facing a similar situation.

Tonight, the group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, which is leading the charge against coal use and transportation, is hosting a community meeting to discuss the impact of a major coal expansion plan in the city of Surrey. The Port of Vancouver is reviewing a controversial plan to allow Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River to construct a new coal handling and transfer facility. Coal from this facility would be barged out of the Fraser to Texada Island. That review does not include broad public consultation or hearings. If approved, coal trains could deliver up to eight million tonnes of coal to Surrey, all of which would have to rumble past the Angelic Teapot and through the scenic White Rock waterfront en route to Fraser Docks.

An 'unnerving' expansion

Today, up to four Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) coal trains travel through central White Rock delivering coal to the Roberts Bank port in Tsawwassen. That could double with a new facility in Surrey.

“What concerns me is how it would change the face of White Rock, especially on Marine Drive,” says concerned White Rock resident Stephanie Smith. Smith has been leading the battle against increase coal trains. “When I saw the long train cars coming through Marine Drive and knowing it would increase it unnerved me.”

Smith isn’t the only one unnerved by the prospect of more coal trains. In December, a coalition of concerned BC and Washington doctors, nurses and health organizations wrote to Port Metro Vancouver about what they see as a fundamental flaw in the decision making process for port projects with a big footprint. The groups are concerned not only about “the risks these projects pose to our climate and public health in general” but also “the absence of a proper regulatory framework for their evaluation”. The health leaders call this lack of oversight on the cumulative health impacts “deeply troubling.”

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