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Council majority calls for coal impact assessments

Expansion and transshipment plans affect entire region
Laura Walz

City of Powell River council is calling for assessments of the impacts of a proposed expansion of coal storage on Texada Island.

A majority of councillors passed a motion at the October 3 council meeting to send a letter to BC’s minister of energy and mines, the provincial and federal minister of environment and BC’s premier asking that they require comprehensive environmental and health impacts assessments for the Strait of Georgia, including Texada and Lasqueti island and Powell River, and that the assessments be completed before approval of the project.

Councillor Russell Brewer made the motion and he, along with councillors Maggie Hathaway, Debbie Dee and Myrna Leishman, voted in favour of it. Mayor Dave Formosa and Councillor Jim Palm voted in opposition to it. Councillor Chris McNaughton is on a medical leave.

Lafarge Canada Inc. is proposing to expand the area at its Texada quarry where it stores coal. The expansion is part of a plan by Fraser Surrey Docks to build coal-handling facilities within its existing terminal operations for the transfer of coal from trains originating in the United States to barges, which would transport the coal up the Strait of Georgia to Lafarge’s quarry for transshipment to Asia.

Powell River Regional District rural directors voted at the September 26 board meeting to support Lafarge’s proposal. Brewer, the alternate for Councillor Maggie Hathaway on the regional board, attended the meeting for her that night and attempted to have the issue referred back to the regional district’s committee-of-the-whole, but his motion was defeated.

He wasn’t suggesting that council not support Lafarge’s proposal, Brewer said at council. “I’m not suggesting that we be naysayers,” he said. “What I’m suggesting is that we request of the regulatory agencies that they give equal consideration for the three pillars as outlined in our sustainability charter prior to giving any approvals.”

Both chief medical health officers for Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health, as well as BC’s medical health officer, have called for a health impact assessment, Brewer pointed out. “Requesting a health impact assessment and an environmental impact assessment is a responsibility I think we owe to our citizens and would demonstrate leadership on climate action,” he said.

Leishman said since there are questions about the harm to the environment and to residents’ health, “I think that we need to do the assessments in order to make sure that it is safe for all of us.”

Palm tried his best to dissuade his colleagues. He read out a number of reasons why it was wrong for council to pass the motion. “I was very happy that I, a regional board director, did not have to vote on that issue, since it comes from their planning department and it’s in their jurisdiction,” he said.

The referral on Lafarge’s proposal went to the regional district and the board had to meet a September 30 deadline to respond, Palm said. Most of the concerns have been addressed by the regional district and other concerns will be addressed by the ministry of environment and Vancouver Coastal Health, Palm said. “To write a letter would then imply potential and serious political issues, for what reason,” he said. “I don’t get it.”

Palm also told Brewer that he should work with residents who are opposing the proposal. He also said “the bases are being covered by the regional district” and he applauds them “for the work they’ve done for our entire region on this issue.”

On a personal level, Palm added, he has been on the regional board for a year and a half, working hard with Hathaway to establish a good working relationship. “This is like a kick in the teeth to those directors,” he said. “It’s just not our place.”

Leishman said she thought it was council’s mandate to take issue with the proposal, because of the potential health and environmental impacts. “To put blinders on our eyes and cotton batten in our ears doesn’t help anything,” she said. “We’re entitled to our opinion that we would like to see something positive come from this.”

Dee said she thought there should be studies done because the coal coming from the United States is brown thermal coal, which is “the dirtiest coal there is.” She’s not against the proposal if the impacts of the coal can be mitigated, she said, “but we don’t know if it can be mitigated by monitoring it after it’s done. I would like to find out first what the impacts will be.”

Hathaway said she thought the regional district process on the referral was flawed. “I see this as an issue that affects the entire regional area, or could,” she said. “This issue was put to the planning committee, of which the city directors are not members and don’t participate. We were unable to vote at any level, nor were we permitted to debate the issue.”

The issue should have gone to the regional district committee of the whole so city directors could have had their say, Hathaway said. “Not being allowed to have our say there, we need to have our say here,” she said.

In response to a question, Formosa said he relies on federal and provincial agencies to take care of residents’ safety and the proposal will create 15 jobs at the quarry. “We just keep saying no to jobs in this community,” he said. “No, no, no.”

To listen to council’s debate on the issue, click here.

Health officer calls for health review

Dr. Paul Martiquet, medical health officer for Coast Garibaldi/Bella Bella/Bella Coola heath services, part of Vancouver Coastal Health, is recommending that a health impact assessment be completed in the review of the expanded coal handling and storage area on Texada Island.

In a letter to the ministry of energy and mines, Martiquet wrote that the assessment should include a comprehensive consultation with the affected regional health authorities, local governments, first nations and the public. The assessment should include the impacts of airborne dust, potential contamination of air, land, fresh water and tidal water, diesel exhaust impacts, excessive noise and the effects of increased marine traffic.

As well, Martiquet questioned Lafarge Canada Inc.’s stormwater management plan. He has concerns about using an estuary to contain coal dust runoff and “there is conflicting evidence that an estuary actually exists,” he wrote. “The effectiveness of the settling ponds is questionable due to the low specific gravity of the coal dust.”

Lafarge has a “poor track record” in addressing concerns of runoff from the limestone quarry that has affected a neighbouring watershed with elevated heavy metals and nitrates, Martiquet wrote. “Drinking Water Officer Dan Glover is presently working with Lafarge to resolve these serious contamination issues, but since 2009, there has been very little progress towards resolution,” Martiquet stated in the letter. “We recommend that this be resolved as a condition of expansion of the coal storage area.”

One of the larger concerns is potential heavy metals in the coal, Martiquet added, in view of the fact that the drinking water for Texada quarries is already being treated for elevated arsenic, antimony and uranium. “An assessment of the impact on the receiving environment should be included in the [health impact assessment].”

Glover told the Peak that there is a drainage course that exits at the quarry and drains into Priest Lake, the source of drinking water for about 400 Van Anda residents. Samples are taken at a culvert draining into the lake, he explained. “We’re seeing metals going into the watershed, but we’re not seeing the levels elevated at the point of intake,” he said. “But, needless to say, we still want it to be corrected. We don’t want that material going into the watershed.”

Glover said he has been working with the company, but nothing has been resolved at this point.

To read Martiquet’s letter, click here.