Last year, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority approved a project that could see four million tonnes of American thermal coal shipped by open rail cars through Vancouver’s Lower Mainland each year. This approval envisions hundreds of additional trains with open cars filled with coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin rolling through our communities to open barges on the Fraser River. The project could be operating as soon as 2016.
Living near the proposed site for the coal port, we were deeply concerned when we first learned about the project. After all, these rail cars will be travelling through our neighbourhoods — the places where we and our families live, work and play. The more we learned about the project and its associated climate change and health impacts, not to mention the Port’s flawed review process, the more worried (and outraged) we became.
Although we were committed to fighting the project, if you had asked us a year ago whether we could imagine taking legal action against the Port we probably would have laughed you out of the room. But we quickly realized that legal action was our only option. In September 2014, with help from Ecojustice lawyers, we launched a lawsuit seeking to quash the Fraser Surrey Docks permit on the grounds of procedural fairness and failure to consider climate impacts.
When we launched the legal case we figured we would be going it alone. So you can imagine how excited we were when we learned that two large Lower Mainland municipalities wanted to intervene in the case in support of our position. It was a significant boost to both our legal case and our morale.
The City of Surrey and the City of New Westminster received intervener status in this case. That means they now have permission to appear before the Court to present their own concerns related to this project and their experience with legal issues similar to the ones in this case – including delegation of authority and bias in decision making.
This is a long-term project that will directly affect the residents of New Westminster and Surrey. The Port initially opposed the application and a court date was set for today, Tuesday, July 14. Then, at the 11th hour, the Port and Fraser Surrey Docks agreed to allow both municipalities’ interventions, and a court order has been issued with the consent of all parties. It seem to us that the Port realized New Westminster and Surrey would be granted intervener status based on their strong applications and direct interest in the matter at hand, and decided to consent rather than lose in court.
In the meantime, we continue working with our lawyers to get this case to court. If the permit for this project is allowed to stand, it will turn our neighbourhoods into a conduit for one of the world’s dirtiest forms of energy. Our families and neighbours will be burdened by the immediate health risks of increased coal transport, including exposure to coal dust and diesel exhaust, while the planet is saddled with more harmful greenhouse gases. If we win, the Port will be forced to redo the review process for this project. Our hope is that a new process will include a truly independent health impact assessment, a more fulsome review of the potential environmental impacts of the project and a process that meaningfully ensures that community and municipal perspectives are respected.
We would love to see the province and the federal government take a stand on this issue as well. But for now, win or lose, it is good to know that local governments are doing the important work of making sure that industrial development projects truly do meet the needs of the communities in which they operate.
In their own words:
“Our house, located about half a kilometre away from Fraser surrey Docks, is situated on land that my grandfather purchased in 1920. My brother and I do occasionally talk about selling our home and moving, but we are committed to this home and to our communities. This home has been in our family for all of our lives. I am concerned that if the coal facility project goes ahead it will further affect our quality of life, even more than the other changes that have occurred here over the years. Specifically, I am worried about the potential health impacts of airborne coal dust and of increased diesel exhaust from trains.” (Christine Dujmovich)
“My family and I live three blocks from the steps that lead down to Crescent Beach, which is where the rail line is. I am particularly concerned about how shipping more coal through my neighbourhood and other neighbourhoods may cause health impacts to me, my family and my community. After learning about the Fraser Surrey Docks project, I decided to form and co-lead a resident-based grassroots group called Communities and Coal . We are run entirely by volunteers and have membership of nearly 300 people. We’ve organised in our communities to help our neighbours understand how this project could affect our lives and give them a place to voice their concerns.” (Paula Williams)