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On May 4th, 2015, Port Metro Vancouver announced its intention to build a full-on coal port on the Fraser Surrey Docks (FSD), replacing previous plans for a direct transfer barge-loading facility, in order to ship between four and eight million tonnes of coal each year from strip-mines in Montana's Powder River Basin to markets in Asia. This thermal-grade coal, often referred to as the dirtiest on Earth, is softer than the BC-sourced metallurgical coal that's usually exported from Metro Vancouver, so it's more likely to generate dust that will be blown into our air and water.

The Dirtiest Coal in the World Moving Through Metro Vancouver

With shipments of four to eight million tonnes per year, even if the FSD facility is able to keep fugitive coal (from dust, spills and wastewater) to the stated annual maximum of one part in ten thousand— which is an optimistic figure at best— that still means between 400,000 and 800,000 kilograms of coal per year escaping into our air and aquatic ecosystems. That’s over a ton of coal per day, every day. To get a sense of what a kilogram of coal looks like, imagine a dinner plate heaped about four inches high. Now, multiply that by 400,000 annually and stack these platefuls of toxic dust up; they'd make a pile 25 to 50 miles high!

Thermal coal dust and other forms of fugitive coal stand to affect sediment and water quality in the Fraser estuary: coal contains significant quantities of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, as well as high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are recognized as dangerous carcinogens. These substances can bioaccumulate in the food web, from herring to salmon to orcas and beyond. Studies on the effects of PAHs in the freshwater and marine environment show that they are particularly harmful to herring embryos; resulting in skeletal defects, impaired swimming, and death. A 2002 study noted that PAHs also adversely affect the immune systems of salmon.

In addition to PAHs, the chemical surfactants that are sprayed on the coal to serve as a dust suppressing agent could potentially have a toxic effect on fish and other aquatic species; causing damage to cell membranes that results in necrotized tissues, impaired gill functions, and compromised immune systems, among other ailments.  

Coastal communities south of the border in Oregon and Washington have already said no to coal terminals on their waterfronts because of their potential impacts on both human and environmental health. But despite these concerns, Port Metro Vancouver seems determined to make Vancouver the largest exporter of US thermal coal in North America.