Port Metro Vancouver will require Fraser Surrey Docks to undertake more research and commit to further steps to keep coal dust from escaping from trains and barges before its proposed new coal export terminal in Surrey will be considered.
Port officials aren't calling for covered train cars but said they expect the terminal proponent to require BNSF railway to re-spray coal trainloads with a dust-control topping agent as CN and CP do on trains coming here from B.C. coal mines.
Fraser Surrey Docks must also eliminate its plan for a contingency coal storage pile at the terminal – which New Westminster residents feared might send clouds of dust floating their way.
And a dust-control agent must also be applied when coal is loaded onto barges that will run down the river and across the Strait of Georgia to Texada Island.
The biggest setback for the year-old $15-million project is Port Metro Vancouver's insistence that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) be undertaken to assess human health and ecological risks from the project.
That's to include both the issue of fugitive coal dust – which the port previously deemed merely a nuisance – as well as risks to aquatic species and increased train noise and traffic, which have been key concerns in White Rock and South Surrey.
It's to be based on the new dust suppression requirements, which Fraser Surrey Docks agreed to Thursday, saying it recognizes the need for more action to reassure residents.
Fraser Surrey Docks president Jeff Scott said consulting firm SNC-Lavalin will carry out the EIA but then handed opponents more ammunition by predicting it could be complete by the end of September.
Critics say the speedy turnaround time signals the study will only be a superficial attempt to blunt public opposition.
"It's absolutely absurd," said Kevin Washbrook of the group Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.
"Two weeks isn't enough time to do a comprehensive study that identifies problems let alone tries to resolve them. Window dressing is all I can call it."
Medical health officers from Lower Mainland health authorities had pressed the port to commit to an extensive health impact assessment but they couldn't be reached for comment on whether they support the latest steps.
Darrell Desjardin, the port's director of environment and sustainability, said it's routine for proponents, not the port, to lead assessments when asked if that would be independent enough.
He said the results of the EIA will be made public, there will be a period for comment by the public, health officers and other organizations.
"Taking all that into consideration, then and only then will the port make their decision," Desjardin said.
He said there's no timeline for reaching a final decision on the coal expansion project.
The EIA will only apply to the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal, not an already-approved coal export expansion by Neptune Terminals in North Vancouver or other potential terminals.
But officials say existing terminals are already using dust-control "best practices" of the sort they expect the Surrey project to use.
Nor will the assessment look at Texada Island, where coal carried from Surrey by barge will be stockpiled before being loaded onto ocean-going ships.
"It crosses an imaginary line and suddenly it's not their responsibility?" asked Washbrook.
He and other climate change activists think they can keep U.S. thermal coal from being shipped out and burned in Asia by blocking new terminals here and in Washington State, where an even bigger 48-mllion tonne terminal is proposed just across the border at Cherry Point.
The Surrey terminal would initially handle four million tonnes per year of U.S.-mined thermal coal, adding one extra coal train per day through Surrey and White Rock, but could later expand to eight million tonnes.
More than 32 million tonnes of coal was shipped through the port's existing terminals last year, mostly via Westshore Terminals at Deltaport.
Neptune's expansion hasn't yet been built – it's awaiting an air quality permit that's still under review by Metro Vancouver.
Existing terminals ship mainly metallurgical coal, which is mined in B.C., used in steel-making and releases less greenhouse gas than thermal coal.
Metro Vancouver's board and some local city councils have opposed the Surrey project.