Media release

BC Lung Association and other health leaders to PMV: delay coal export decisions until health risks are thoroughly evaluated

-- work with Local Governments, Health Authorities to assess health impacts of six additional coal train trips per day through local communities

For Immediate Release

December 17 2012

Vancouver -- An open letter (attached) from the BC Lung Association, the Public Health Association of BC, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and individual health leaders was delivered today to Port Metro Vancouver, calling on it to delay decisions on two coal export expansion proposals until the cumulative health impacts of increased coal train traffic through Metro Vancouver communities can be properly evaluated.

The letter calls on the Port Authority to work with local governments, First Nations and regional health authorities to develop a transparent process for evaluating health impacts from increases in regional coal train traffic generated by these proposals.

Signatories note that they share concerns expressed in an earlier open letter to the Port Authority from climate scientists and others. "Why would we, in a province so rightfully proud of our clean energy, enable the delivery of these products that are globally toxic when used as intended?" said Dr Erica Frank, Canada Research Chair in Preventive Medicine and Population Health, UBC. "Not only are these coal exports a threat to the climate, we are concerned that they may be a threat to local health as well," Frank said.

Plans currently before the Port Authority, if approved and built to capacity, would result in a minimum of 3 more return trips (6 one way trips) by coal trains through Metro Vancouver each day. This would be in addition to the 6 or more return coal train trips (12 one way) which currently pass through regional communities each day.

In the letter, health leaders point out that there are known health risks from exposure to diesel exhaust and coal dust and that approval of coal export plans would increase public exposure to both substances. No public agency is currently in a position to monitor or regulate cumulative increases in diesel exhaust from trains, and there are no regulations in Canada to control the release of coal dust from rail cars.

BNSF railway has stated that a coal train can lose over 100,000 kg of coal, much of it as dust, on its journey from mine to terminal. There should be a full accounting of the impact of these losses on public health prior to the approval of any coal export proposals.

There are more than 10 elementary and secondary schools, as well as a number of day care centres and seniors' homes within 1 kilometre of the BNSF railway line which would serve the proposed Fraser Surrey Dock coal export terminal. On the north side of the Fraser River alone, there are more than 10 schools, a number of day care centres and a hospital within 1 kilometre of the CN line which would serve the proposed Neptune Terminals coal export expansion.

It is likely there will be continued pressure to increase coal exports out of Vancouver in the future:

      Westshore Terminals has indicated that it could easily export an additional 20 million tonnes/year US coal, if it had the capacity;
        Fraser Surrey Docks has indicated that it is seeking out other coal export customers in addition to BNSF;
          if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham Washington (projected to generate 18 return coal train trips per day) is not approved, there may be increased demand to export US coal through BC.

The potential for cumulative health impacts on local communities from increased exposure to diesel exhaust and coal dust should be thoroughly evaluated before the Port Authority approves any proposals for coal export expansion.

"If the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority truly aspires to be a good neighbour to Metro Vancouver communities, it should start by acknowledging that these coal export proposals have the potential to generate cumulative health impacts in areas outside their jurisdiction," said Kevin Washbrook, Director with Voters Taking Action on Climate Change. "The Port Authority should put these decisions on hold, and work with regional communities and Health Authorities to assess the impacts and determine if these development proposals are in everyone's best interests."

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1. For a summary of health concerns associated with exposure to diesel exhaust and coal dust, see the statement issued by the Whatcom Docs, a group of more than 200 Physicians in Whatcom County, Washington concerned about the proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Export Terminal near Bellingham Washington, found here.

Note that the statement is a summary of all health concerns -- including those from occupational exposure to coal dust by miners. Appendix B examines the issues related to coal dust exposure along railway lines in more detail.

2. The BNSF statement about coal dust releases from coal trains has been removed from their web site. However, the web page has been archived by the Sightline Institute in Seattle and can be read here. BNSF currently will not make information on coal dust escapes from trains public. Eric de Place, Senior Researcher with the Sightline Institute, can provide more information on this issue. Contact: 206-447-1880 x105.

The archived BNSF web page indicates 500 lbs to one ton (2000 lbs) of coal can be lost from each rail car. At an average length of 125 cars, a train could lose up to 250,100 lbs/113,000 kgs of coal over the course of a journey. The impact of these losses on public health should be assessed prior to the approval of coal export proposals.