Port says it didn't mislead public on North Vancouver coal expansion

North Vancouver’s Neptune Bulk Terminals.  - Todd Coyne photo
North Vancouver’s Neptune Bulk Terminals.
— image credit: Todd Coyne photo

Port Metro Vancouver is defending its decision last month to approve the doubling of coal exports through North Vancouver's Neptune Terminals, after environmentalists accused the Port of misrepresenting the public's opposition to the project.

The Vancouver-based Voters Take Action on Climate Change accused the Port last week of "apparent bias" in its public engagement process, saying "it weighed comments in support of expanding coal exports more favourably than those opposed," and called the alleged move "deeply troubling."

Two days later, on Feb. 15, Port president Robin Silvester fired back, saying VTACC misunderstood the public engagement process, which is neither a democratic vote nor a popularity contest.

"Fundamentally, it's not a voting process by the number of letters received," Silvester told The Outlook in a phone interview Friday. "It's a very thorough, robust technical assessment process. We seek public input and we look at the content of the input, not the number or types of letters."

The conflict arose after more than 1,000 letters and emails were collected by the Port as part of its public consultation, expressing either support or opposition to the Neptune expansion.

The majority of those — 640 letters — opposed the coal expansion, including 378 copies of five different form letters which were circled around the community and forwarded to the Port.

On the pro-expansion side, the Port received only 375 letters, a full 360 of which were copies of just one form letter, all sent on January 16th, one week before the Port released its decision.

While there's nothing offside about the use of form letters in Port public engagements, VTACC took issue with how the federal authority characterized the correspondence in its Jan. 23 rationale for approving the expansion.

“Port Metro Vancouver received approximately 375 emails and letters expressing general support for trading coal," the Port wrote. "Port Metro Vancouver also received more than 640 emails and letters (with the vast majority of those being form letters) expressing general concerns about the possible broader environmental and health impacts of coal," the report continued.

The misrepresentation arises, according to VTACC, with the claim that 378 of the 640 letters opposing the expansion constitutes a "vast majority," while the fact that 360 of the 375 letters of support were also form letters, though this didn't get a mention in the report.

In fact, if all duplicate letters are excluded from the written consultation, the Port would have only received 16 letters of support and 267 opposed to the project.

"We probably could have phrased some of those things more clearly," Silvester admitted to The Outlook. However, he stopped short of claiming any error or deliberate misrepresentation was made, saying, "I haven't seen anything that I'd say is incorrect."

That hasn't stopped VTACC from calling on the Port to scrap its Neptune approval and begin a "transparent" public review, "given this suggestion of bias on the part of the Port Authority."

The Neptune expansion will allow the North Vancouver terminals to double their coal-handling capacity from 9 million tonnes to 18 million, with construction expected to begin next year.

"We're very confident that it's been a good process and that it's the right decision," Silvester said.

In the latest development between the two groups, on Feb. 19, VTACC director Kevin Washbrook submitted his name along with more than 400 endorsements for a recently vacant seat on the Port's board of directors.

Washbrook said his campaign will seek to bring a more transparent, accountable and publicly engaged Port authority to Metro Vancouver.


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