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Rail realignment discussion in Surrey/White Rock poses question of which interests will be served

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While little or none of that oil is presently transported to Canada’s west coast, the proposal by the Port of Metro Vancouver to construct a second pier at its Roberts Bank shipping terminal has local watchdogs fearing this could eventually house an oil export terminal. Official plans say the second pier will be dedicated to container traffic.

At the same time, BNSF is transporting increasing amounts of thermal coal to the Pacific coast from Wyoming and Montana, including to the port of Vancouver. In 2002, an average of two trains per day moved along the White Rock/Surrey stretch of BNSF; the number has grown by ten times since then. Coal trains make up much of that increase.

Added to the existing concerns about diesel exhaust is the coal dust that flies off the loads in passing trains. One White Rock resident living near the rail line told this writer recently that he is washing coal dust from the exterior of his house more frequently than ever.

Coal train opponents have important allies just south of the U.S. border in Whatcom Country in the form of a vigorous citizen campaign opposing the movement of coal trains. A giant export terminal is proposed on unceded Lummi Indian lands at Cherry Point, just west of Bellingham. If built, this terminal, named Gateway Pacific, would become the largest coal export terminal on the west coast. The trains that would feed this terminal--several dozen per day--would roll through downtown Bellingham and its waterfront neighbourhoods.

With or without Gateway Pacific, many of the trains delivering U.S. coal to Vancouver are coming through Bellingham. (See BNSF route map here.)

Where does Surrey City Council stand on coal train and exports?

The presentation by Mayor Watts at the Nov 26 forum should set a few alarm bells ringing for environmentalists and public health advocates.

Her presentation extolled the benefits to industry of realignment. A new line would better support the port of Vancouver and its growth, she said. The city’s photo display on the project lists its benefits, including: “Enables increasing rail frequency and capacity without major impacts to communities.”

Which industries and commodities would grow thanks to realignment? The mayor did not say. And there wasn’t much time to ask—a mere 15 minutes was allocated for questions and answers following the presentations of the two mayors.

Jeff Arason, Manager, Utilities of Surrey’s engineering department, told the Observer that the city’s environmental concerns over the proposed, direct-transfer coal facility at Surrey Fraser Docks are applicable to any proposal that would increase the movement of coal through the city.

On October 28, Surrey City Council voted unanimously to not support the FSD proposal in its current form. The motion requests that Port Metro Vancouver commission a comprehensive health impact assessment by an independent third party as well as full public hearings on the project. 

Surrey Council received a report from staff on November 25 indicating concern with the impact assessment study of coal train movement and coal shipping that was commissioned by Port Metro Vancouver and released on Nov 18. That was prepared by SNC Lavalin and consists largely of reviewing existing reports and studies. The city says there are deficiencies in the assessment and complains it was not consulted in its preparation.

These steps by the city have been welcomed by environmental advocates, but it took considerable lobbying on their part to get to there.

At the Nov. 26 forum, Mayor Watts spoke to the subject of railway safety only briefly. She appeared to downplay concerns about deficient regulatory practices that have come to light since Lac Mégantic. In response to an audience question on the subject, she commented in a reassuring tone that the federal government is looking after railway safety and then moved on. But the state of rail safety regulation in Canada is anything but reassuring.

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