Monday, December 2, 2013

Fraser Coal Port - am I the only one?

Let’s just put it all on the table.  One – I’m probably not going to make too many friends with this post.  Two – I have worked at a coal mine.  I spent an eight-month co-op job at Fording River Operations near Elkford, BC, some 10 years ago while working on my degree.  I studied mechanical engineering, so I was working with the equipment as opposed to the process, but I got my hands dirty in the industry.  My first job after university was in the mining industry as a contractor, and among the many mines I worked with, a number were coal. 

As you probably already know, the Fraser Surrey Docks, under Port Metro Vancouver have proposed building a coal-terminal on the south shore of the Fraser.  This has led to much writing of letters, waving of signs, and rending of garments.  The objections have been manifold, but primarily can be distilled down to a few main points. 
  • The health and nuisance effects of coal dust from the trains, transfer, and barges
  • Diesel pollution from the coal trains
  • Emergency access and traffic concerns from the coal trains 
Do these things need to be addressed?  Absolutely.  And according to the environmental assessment, they are being addressed through standard industry practices.  Is that enough?  Given Metro Vancouver’s position as a major coal port already, I think it is.

Why I think a mountain is being made out of this molehill is this: the Fraser coal terminal practically speaking is insignificant.  Westshore Terminals, the Roberts Bank terminal, shipped 27.3 million tonnes of coal in 2011.  Neptune in North Vancouver is looking to ship 18 million.  The  four-million proposed by Fraser-Surrey docks is minor in comparison – it won’t change significantly the amount of coal dust flying around Metro Vancouver, and we’re talking one additional daily train on top of 70 in Metro Vancouver – emergency access and locomotive pollution are weak arguments to make for this. 

And as much as everyone is demonizing coal dust and the lack of understanding how small amounts of it affects  health, coal towns have been around a long time and the review of their health have been inconclusive at best

The big gap in the Environmental Assessment, as New Westminster Citizen of the Year, Environmental Geoscientist, and all around entertaining blogger Patrick Johnstone adeptly pointed out, is greenhouse gas emissions.  The Port says it’s outside their scope – some say that’s not good enough; I say it’s not the Port’s call to make. 

As a country we have said burning coal is still acceptable.  B.C. doesn’t have any, but in six out of ten provinces we burn coal for power (Manitoba uses its single coal fired boiler for emergency use only).  We burn coal for steelmaking.   It is hypocritical for us to say we can burn coal, but you can’t.  If as a country we are unwilling to stop burning coal, it is unfair and unjust to deny that opportunity to others.  (On the other hand saying a product is too hazardous for us to use butokay to ship out to the rest of the world is pretty damn sketchy.  Additional disclaimer – as a teenager I had a pen-pal from Asbestos, Quebec.  What can I say – I love their accent). 

This is effectively trying to legislate another country by fiat.  If the US called Canada one day and said “We need to stop global warming, and you guys already withdrew from Kyoto so  we’re not going to send you any more oil,” while they continued to buy SUVs by the bucket and sell oil to Mexico, we’d be rightfully pissed.  Getting our own house in order, leading by example, not being hypocrites – let’s do things right. 

Secondly, if we are concerned with local pollution from trains (and we should be), the right approach isn’t to stop one more train containing stuff we happen to not like.  The approach should be to back out to a regional level and assess what maximum level of train, truck, ship, and automobile traffic can we support at our pollution limits, and how do we drive traffic down below that.  Lo and behold, Metro Vancouver has done part of this!  Metro Vancouver has an AirQuality Management plan that provides the targets. 

The Air Quality Management Plan’s vision is “Health, clean and clear air for current and future generations.”  (suitably fuzzy and vague) and its strategies include “Reduce emissions of and public exposure to diesel particulate matter,” “Reduce air contaminant emissions from industrial, commercial and agricultural sources…,” “residential sources,” and “cars, trucks and buses.” Other strategies include increasing public engagement, partner with other agencies, reducing carbon footprints. 

Surprisingly for a government plan, it has some actual performance metrics in there – exceedances of air quality objectives, hours with Air Quality Health index in the High/Low category, and some percentages to track the year over year change.  While it would be difficult work I’m sure, we should be able to model the regional emission sources and validate that against currently measured air pollution.  From there, we can assess what level of industry and transport the region can support (or how much we need to reduce) to be within our targets for air quality.  As technology improves and emission sources get smaller we can allow additional development, create more stringent targets, or some combination of the two. 

Then we can actually answer the question of can the region support one more train per day.  Or a waste incinerator.  It can also drive policy – we can model trade-offs on truck, train, heavy equipment and industry to see the best way to reduce diesel particulate matter.  At that means we can make informed decisions on the issues instead of leaping to a panic. 

Given all that, I am in favour of the proposed facility as it is currently given.  As a country, we are still burning coal – until we decide otherwise it’s not our place to condemn others for doing the same.   As a region, we are a coal port (among other things).  Singling out this one port and 4 million tonnes while ignoring the 27 million at Roberts Bank smacks of NIMBYism.  One train per day and a 10% increase in coal through the region is not going to significantly change the regional pollution situation.  Local effects need to be managed, yes, and the trains and port are using best practices as they stand.  As those practices improve, we should pressure them to keep up.

And none of this considers the benefits to the recipients.  All of North American stands as a witness to the benefits electrification brings.  To deny that benefit to another country is imperialism – we know better than you what’s good for you, so you can’t have it.  Is there a cost to coal powered electricity?  Does it need to be weighed against the benefits?  Yes, but it’s not our place to make that decision for another country.  

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