Surrey coal port about expanding business: CEO

A train on the BNSF tracks carries coal bound for Westshore Terminals
A train on the BNSF tracks carries coal bound for Westshore Terminals' export facility in Delta.
— image credit: Paul Anderson photo

A proposed transfer station for four million metric tonnes of thermal coal a year in Surrey-North Delta is an attempt by the company to rebound from the recession, according to the company's CEO and president.

Jeff Scott told Delta council on Monday (Feb. 18) that Fraser Surrey Docks (FSD) used to employ 400 workers at the height of its operations, but the economic downturn has resulted in downsizing to 280 employees.

"Our priority was expanding business regardless of what the commodity was," said Scott, adding that if the project is approved by Port Metro Vancouver it would generate 50 more jobs.

The project is not without controversy, as the plan involves importing thermal coal from mines in Montana and Wyoming, through the Blaine border crossing, along the BNSF railway line through White Rock, North Delta, and finally to the deepsea terminal on the Fraser River.

FSD plans to import two million metric tonnes of coal in the first year with 160 coal trains arriving, each with between 125 and 135 coal cars in tow. That will double in years two through five, up to 320 coal trains a year.

Coun. Scott Hamilton said there's been a lack of public consultation with North Delta residents who live in neighbourhoods along the BNSF railway.

"Prior to advancing this any further I would hope that Fraser Surrey Docks advances an opportunity to solicit some feedback from the residents along there," he said.

Hamilton said that given the volatility of thermal coal—spontaneous combustion is one of the risks of handling the product—FSD should make residents aware of what's being proposed.

"We've done a pretty thorough consultation already but we are prepared to meet with community groups and we have been meeting with community groups already," said Scott.

The port will be used solely as a transfer station, with between 6,000 and 6,500 metric tonnes of coal being loaded onto barges, each with an 8,000 metric tonne capacity, and then shipped along the Fraser River to Texada Island. From there the coal is loaded onto deep sea vessels for shipment to Asia.

The plan would mean a 4.3 per cent increase in vessel traffic along the Fraser in year one, with those numbers doubling in years two through five, up to 640 barges a year.

Some residents have become concerned about the idea of more vessels on the Fraser, particularly in light of the spill at Westshore's Roberts Bank Superport in December.

Scott said there are several safety plans in place to mitigate such an accident. And because coal is inert, environmental consultants for FSD say there wouldn't be any release of chemical components by touching water.

"Our understanding is there would be no impact to marine life and no change to the water," said Scott. "The key is the immediate remediation of the coal from the water."

Coun. Sylvia Bishop asked whose responsibility it will be to guarantee the safe movement of the coal, and urged FSD to take every measure possible to protect both people and the environment.

"The coal company is responsible for their cargo condition throughout the entire movement of the chain," said Scott, adding the barge contractor would be responsible for a spill on the Fraser.

Coun. Ian Paton questioned why coal originating from the United States wouldn't go to deepsea ports in Portland, Everett, Anacortes, or Bellingham.

"Why does this coal have to come to Canada to be transferred onto barges to go up our Fraser River and then to Texada Island. Why doesn't it go to an American port in Washington State and be directly loaded onto the ships to go to Asia," said Paton.

Scott said the main reason is those ports aren't able to handle the sort of coal volume that FSD is proposing without significant infrastructure upgrades.

"We are an existing deepsea terminal. We are permitted to handle the product, which is an acceptable import/export product within Canada and is traded globally around the world."

Other concerns such as dust from coal cars will also be addressed in mitigation plans both at FSD and along the Fraser River and BNSF rail line, said Scott.

"We realize it's a privilege to work in the community, it's not a right, and we want to maintain that privilege," he said.

The FSD application for four million metric tonnes of coal a year is still under review by Port Metro Vancouver. It is a separate business from Westshore Terminals on Roberts Bank which receives coal train deliveries from the interior of B.C.

Westshore shipped 27 million metric tonnes of coal in 2011.

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