Documents obtained by Voters Taking Action on Climate Change (VTACC) through an Access to Information request "reveal details of an inappropriate relationship between the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, charged with making a decision on proposed coal export projects, and the public relations firm representing the Coal Alliance, a lobby group created to defend the industry's interests in those projects", the group says.
VTACC says the documents fundamentally challenge the Port's credibility as the neutral federal authority mandated to operate "with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians."
"The cozy communication between the Port and the coal lobby on this issue confirms what we've always thought: the Port is acting more as an industry advocate than a public regulator," according to Kevin Washbrook, VTACC director. "What's worse, they don't seem to realize that this is a problem. How can we trust them to look after the public interest?"
VTACC offered the following examples, drawn from documents found here.
The Port and industry lobbyists routinely communicate as if they are allies, rather than as public regulator and private proponent, the group says, adding that:
- National Public Relations, the PR firm behind the Coal Alliance, provided the Port with media round ups, advance notice of media appearances and op-ed placement by industry lobbyists, and on one occasion a detailed report on a community rally regarding the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks coal terminal.
- In turn, Port staff monitored VTACC email announcements and provided a "heads up" to the Vice President at National Public Relations so that coal industry lobbyists could attend a rally held outside Port Authority offices and speak to the media.
After agreeing to co-sponsor a public forum on coal exports with Kids for Climate Action (K4CA), Port staff regularly briefed National Public Relations on meetings with the youth group, and eventually withdrew from the planned event in response to industry disapproval.
- Port staff assured National Public Relations that they would "bring industry into the fold as soon as it is appropriate to do so but will keep you in the loop along the way."
- Port staff expressed interest in having a National Public Relations Vice President facilitate negotiations with K4CA but didn't pursue the option because National Public Relations represents the Coal Alliance, "so technically that is not neutral."
- When National Public Relations relayed that the coal lobby would not participate in a public forum that would "result in a debate of opinions," the Port withdrew its co-sponsorship of the forum.
"It was weird to read Port emails reporting to industry lobbyists on our meetings, and especially disappointing that the Port withdrew from its commitment at the industry's bidding," said Sam Harrison, K4CA Director. "Is the coal industry really that afraid of public debate?"
An informal survey of environmental and community groups working on the coal export issue confirms that, unlike industry lobbyists, none have ever received emails from the Port Authority describing their media coverage as "positive progress," nor expressions of "good luck" (with smiley face symbols appended) from Port staff prior to public events.
These findings reinforce the need for involvement in Port decision making by public agencies charged with protection of public health and the environment, to ensure that the concerns of Metro Vancouver residents, local governments, and health authorities are given as much weight as those of the coal industry -- before decisions are made with respect to major coal export projects that could impact our future and transform our region.
The public deserves a credible process for the evaluation of the risks posed by these projects, conducted by an impartial public authority, VTACC wrote in a news release this morning, adding that "VTACC believes that, through its conduct to date, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has not earned the public's trust as that impartial authority.
"In order to regain public confidence and shed its image as an industry advocate, VTACC calls on the Port Authority to work closely with all relevant public authorities - including local and regional governments and health authorities - to jointly conduct comprehensive and impartial environmental and health impact assessments to thoroughly evaluate and regulate environmental, community, and public health risks from these proposals. These assessments should be transparent and incorporate public hearings."
Reporters are reaching out to the Port Authority now for a response to VTACC's statement.