Coal expansion plan a serious health concern: chief medical officers ask for more formal input into reviews

Fraser Surrey docks photo courtesy of Port Metro Vancouver

The leaders of British Columbia’s two largest health authorities are requesting “a formal voice” as plans to expand coal exports from the Port of Vancouver develop, citing potential health risks and livability impacts.

In a letter to Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) CEO Robin Silvester, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly and Fraser Health chief medical officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder say it’s their responsibility to become more involved in the planning and review of projects that may impact on the health of the community. Currently, they are not part of that review process.

"It`s somewhat of a new concept; one that we have suggested to other organizations that are involved in planning, but the Port is a little different because it is not part of the municipal structure," Daly said.

PMV is currently reviewing plans to allow Fraser Surrey Docks to build a new coal transfer facility that will handle up to four million tonnes of coal per year and a number of new coal trains. In North Vancouver, Neptune Terminals has applied to increase its current coal handling capacity to 18 million tonnes per year – up from 12 million tonnes. The company estimates this will add approximately one additional coal train per day and one additional ship per week at the North Vancouver terminal.

The health authorities say the expansion plans raise health issues outside the port boundaries that include increase air emissions and noise and the movement of hazardous goods through communities while failing to assess the broader community-wide health impacts. All of these could be addressed if the Port institutes a health impacts assessment.

"That`s the whole purpose of a health impact assessment, to analyze, and that has not been done to this point," Daly said. 

The letter from the two chief doctors is not the first. In early December, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson wrote to Silvester complaining that the port was not properly consulting with residents and businesses. He cited the impact of coal on climate change and concerns over coal dust from increased train traffic impacting the environment. The letter was supported by councillors from Delta, New Westminster and David Suzuki, who called on Vancouver to lead the world in reassessing its use of fossil fuels.

Also in December, a coalition of BC health associations, physicians, nurses, medical academics and a group of 200 Washington doctors warned PMV in a letter of climatic and health risks of increasing coal and rail traffic. They also cited the absence of a proper framework for the evaluation of these projects.

The latest letter from the two medical health officers also raises the issue of a vacuum when it comes to health concerns. Daly and Van Buynder exhort PMV to go beyond current assessment and review protocols and engage in broad public consultation on its coal export plans.

"Perhaps in the past public health people have not been involved in some of these local planning issues if it is not immediately obvious that the plan relates to health services," Daly said. 

In an open letter published on the PMV website in December, Silvester says Port Metro Vancouver’s mandate is to facilitate trade on behalf of Canada while upholding “the highest standards of safety, planning and environmental reviews”.

"The review that we undertake is a comprehensive project and environment review," said Jim Crandles, Director of Planning and Development at PMV in an interview with The Vancouver Observer.

"And one of the things we do is we look at the effect on human health. It is the case that is very typical in port development and is certainly the case for these two developments, the major issues that relate to human health relate to air emissions as well as noise."

While not formally part of the review process, Crandles said health concerns are always at the forefront of major project reviews.

"No question this is the kind of stuff we are interested in, meeting with the health authorities, trying to understand their perspectives and to see if there is something that we are not doing that they`ve identified in their letter."

Dr. Daly says in recent years health authorities have become more involved in planning for projects like landfills and waste-to-energy plants that impact health. She says their request to PMV may have caught the port by surprise.

"This might be a new concept to them but I wouldn't blame them in the sense they hadn`t thought of it before," Daly said. "My hope is their response is `this is something we want to talk about as it could benefit us as well as benefiting the public."

"This is the first time we have heard from the health authorities saying that they would like this kind of involvement in our processes. So, we want to explore that," Crandles said.  

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