A public relations battle is brewing over plans by North Vancouver's Neptune Terminals to potentially double the volume of coal it handles.
Neptune currently has two applications in to Port Metro Vancouver, involving changing and upgrading equipment to allow coal trains to be unloaded faster at the terminal.
If approved, the expansion plan would increase the terminal's handling of metallurgical coal from current volumes of between eight and nine million tonnes annually to 18 million tonnes.
Jim Belsheim, president of Neptune, says the terminal's expansion will boost the local economy and create more than 180 new jobs. "We're pretty proud of our project," he said.
But coal exports are increasingly coming under fire from advocacy groups for both their effect on global warming and potential health impacts.
Recently, the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative ran an automated telephone campaign that involved phoning about 11,000 households in North Vancouver to raise concerns about the planned coal expansion.
The recorded message featured Dr. Erica Frank, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia and climate change activist, talking about the project adding "a massive increase to trains near your neighbourhood" and voicing concerns about the health impacts of coal dust and diesel exhaust.
Frank said in the recording if expansion plans in both North Vancouver and Delta go ahead, Vancouver will be "the largest exporter of coal in North America," adding, "I wonder if anyone asked you if you wanted this increase."
Belsheim said he's "a little disappointed with the robocalls." The recordings contain "misleading" information, such as the assertion Neptune is building a new berth, said Belsheim. "We're not," he said. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts," he added.
Neptune has estimated the expansion would mean one additional
train coming into the terminal each day. But Belsheim said the trains come off the rail bridge and directly on to Neptune's site where they are moved with a mechanical device run by electricity. Cars carrying coal are sprayed with a sealant when they are loaded to minimize coal dust, he said.
"Coal is very safe," he said. "That's an important message to establish."
Belsheim said Neptune hosted an open house on the project attended by 600 people and has consulted the local neighbourhood extensively. "We're pretty serious about wanting to be a good neighbour," he said.
Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative that ran the anti-coal campaign, disputes that.
"There's very little knowledge of the plans of the port," he said. Horter also doesn't agree that coal is harmless.
"There's known health impacts in neighbourhoods," he said. Coal trains have been shown to arrive at their destinations lighter than they depart, said Horter, because of all the coal dust that gets blown or washed away in transit. He added coal dust contains heavy metals that contribute to health problems and have been shown to be carcinogenic.
Others are also concerned about the possible health impacts of the port's coal expansion plans. Recently, the heads of two Metro Vancouver health authorities wrote to the port to ask that health authorities be formally recognized and consulted when plans are being considered.
Horter said currently there is little opportunity for public input when the port is making decisions with potentially large impacts. "The port is fairly cavalier about their accountability," he said.
In contrast, a proposed coal port at Cherry Point, Washington in the United States is subject to a far more vigorous public process, he said.
Both the Dogwood Initiative and the environmental group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change have raised concerns about the impact of burning coal on global climate change.
The carbon emissions from exported coal aren't tallied against Canada, "because it's not burned here. . . ." said Horter. "The impact is the same."
Belsheim said the metallurgical coal handled by Neptune is needed in the chemical reaction with iron ore to create steel - a long lasting and heavily recycled product. That's very different from thermal coal burned for power generation, he said.
Horter said regardless of what it's used for, "Burning coal produces the same pollution."