Fraser Surrey Docks is going to court to challenge Metro Vancouver’s authority over air quality enforcement in the region, a move critics think is aimed at clearing the way for a controversial coal export terminal there.
The dispute isn’t directly related to the proposed coal-loading facility on the Fraser River, which is awaiting a final approval decision from the port authority.
Instead, it’s in response to a $1,000 air pollution ticket Metro issued Fraser Surrey Docks for the release of soybean dust last October from its existing dock operations.
But the two agencies are also at odds over coal exports.
Metro Vancouver has already opposed any new coal terminal and indicated it may wield its regulatory authority to deny an air quality permit for the project after approval if it isn’t satisfied with measures to address air pollution concerns.
Anti-coal activist Kevin Washbrook said a court win for Fraser Surrey Docks could clear a major obstacle for the proposal to run additional coal trains through White Rock and South Surrey and down the Fraser River by barge to Texada Island.
“This is the port and Fraser Surrey Docks trying to clear the decks for whatever future battles they see coming down the line,” Washbrook said.
The regional district board has also supported Lower Mainland chief medical health officers in demanding a health impact assessment of the coal export project, something the port has resisted.
“My guess is the port is tired of dealing with these pesky local governments and health authorities interfering with their planning and they’re trying to clear all that out of the way so they can run their own show,” Washbrook said.
He said the provincial government, which delegates its air quality regulatory authority to Metro, should oppose any effort to exempt port lands because that could open the door to lax regulation of industrial air pollution in urban areas.
Vancouver Coun. and Metro board vice-chair Raymond Louie said the regional district doesn’t yet have an answer on whether it has provincial government support.
A provincial environment ministry spokesman declined to comment as the matter is before the courts.
Louie said Metro believes it has legal authority via the province over air contamination throughout the region, including on port lands.
“If that’s not the case, then it’s important for our citizens to understand who is in charge and what would they do to ensure our air quality is kept at the highest level,” Louie said. “If it’s not in our jurisdiction, what will the federal government do to ensure our air quality is kept safe?”
Asked whether Port Metro Vancouver recognizes and supports Metro regulation of air quality on port lands, spokesman John Parker-Jervis did not directly respond.
He said only that the port doesn’t have the legislative authority to force a project proponent like Fraser Surrey Docks to obtain a Metro air emission permit as a condition of project approval.
“That’s not something we can require of them,” he said.
Washbrook said the province should take a stand because a win by Fraser Surrey Docks could translate into an exemption of port and other federally controlled lands – such as pipeline corridors – from provincial regulation.
He said the port should not end up with authority to decide what level of cumulative health impacts from port-driven projects are acceptable to local communities.
Fraser Surrey Docks CEO Jeff Scott declined to be interviewed, saying only that the dispute is at a preliminary stage and the terminal is seeking clarification.