Anti-coal campaign targets North Vancouver

Neptune Bulk Terminals - Submitted photo
Neptune Bulk Terminals
— image credit: Submitted photo

Robocalls targeting the expansion of coal port facilities at North Vancouver's Neptune Bulk Terminals are the latest tactic in a region-wide public relations war over the commodity's growing export.

The automated calls are part of a campaign by the Dogwood Initiative, a Victoria-based environmental group opposing a pair of applications under review by Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) to expand coal facilities at Neptune and build a new coal facility at north Surrey's Fraser Surrey Docks.

The caller is Dr. Erica Frank, a prominent public health expert and UBC professor, warning of the health hazards of coal dust and busy rail crossings.

Launched before the new year, the calls have so far targeted more than 10,000 homes across North Vancouver, as well as neighbourhoods in Surrey, White Rock, Delta and Texada Island.

But Neptune boss Jim Belsheim says the calls are deliberately deceiving the public about his Low Level Road company's plans.

"In this case, the facts just aren't correct," the Neptune president said.

For starters, Neptune's expansion will not require building a new ship berth, as the call claims. Rather, Neptune has applied to replace one of two existing ship loaders and to build a second dumper to handle the higher volumes of coal that will be coming in by rail, Belsheim said.

Neptune currently moves about nine million tonnes of coal per year, most of it arriving at the terminals from coal fields near Fernie, before it's packed and bound by boat for Asia.

But if PMV okays the expansion, Neptune's coal output will double to 18 million tonnes a year, requiring one additional coal train through North Vancouver every day.

"Did anyone ask you if you wanted this increase?" the recording asks, rhetorically. "To many people the proposed coal port expansion is just a news item, but [to] people like you that live near the Neptune terminal or train tracks, it means hundreds if not thousands of huge coal trains a year barreling through your community and leaving behind diesel exhaust and coal dust — components of smog with known adverse human health impacts — as well as traffic and safety hazards."

Belsheim took umbrage with these claims, noting that while, yes, train engines do burn diesel fuel, once those trains reach his terminals they are decoupled from their standard diesel locomotives and linked up with one of Neptune's three electric locomotives.

And as for traffic safety, Belsheim points out that there simply are no at-grade rail crossings east of Neptune for pedestrians or vehicles to contend with.

"The trains come directly off the rail bridge and straight onto Neptune's site," he said. "It's unloaded then immediately goes back along the same track and onto the rail bridge. So there's no interaction with the North Shore residents. There's no risk with traffic, no shunting noise, no whistles, it's quite isolated."

To the question of increased dust, Belsheim said all of the coal that comes into Neptune has already been treated with a dust-reducing sealant, though the company also applies its own sealants and uses small weather stations to monitor dust levels.

Belsheim insisted that yes, Neptune did ask the community if it wanted the coal-shipment increase in a series of public consultation sessions and meetings with resident groups. "We want to be a good neighbour," he said.

Dr. Frank did not return The Outlook's request for an interview, but Dogwood executive director Will Horter explained away any inconsistencies in the recorded message as the result of having to paint both the Neptune and Fraser Surrey Docks expansions with the same "regional issue" brush.

"These same calls were made in five different places so we had to describe the impacts on the region," Horter said. "So whether there's a second terminal or they're just expanding capacity through the existing berth, it's the same impact on communities, really."

Horter described the robocall campaign — a tactic he regrets — as a hurried but necessary response to PMV's announcement in December that it was already reviewing the coal port applications, which caught Dogwood by surprise.

"This is really the premature launch of a larger campaign," he said. "We anticipated launching our coal campaign in 2013, but then when the Port tried to slide these two proposals under the door quietly before the New Year, we felt like we had to respond."

If approved, the two expansions will make PMV the largest exporter of coal in North America, and that is worrisome from an environmental standpoint, Horter said.

But Belsheim maintains that, contrary to Dogwood's claim that the new Neptune coal "will produce millions of tons of global warming pollution when burned," the company handles only all-Canadian metallurgical coal used not to fuel coal-fired power plants but rather to make steel, one of the most commonly recycled materials available.

Belsheim also refuted Dogwood's claim that "there are no regulations to control the release of coal dust from rail cars," saying there are a number of regulators that monitor not just air quality at Neptune daily, but noise, safety and traffic as well.

"Debate is healthy," Belsheim said. "If there's information that can help us, we want to know it… but in this tape the facts clearly weren't correct."

If approved, Neptune will take the rest of the year to do an intensive engineering review before beginning the build-out of its coal expansion in 2014.

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