Fraser Surrey Docks operation on the Fraser River in Surrey.

Coal port firm drops court battle against Metro Vancouver

Fraser Surrey Docks challenge of regional district's jurisdiction over air pollution abandoned for now but could resurface

The company aiming to build a new coal export terminal in Surrey has at least for now abandoned its court challenge of Metro Vancouver’s power to regulate industrial air pollution.

Fraser Surrey Docks had challenged Metro’s jurisdiction over air quality after it contested a $1,000 ticket Metro issued for the release of soybean dust while loading ships two years ago.

The legal dispute had raised fears that Metro might lose its authority to control industrial emissions from any federal lands, not just at Fraser Surrey Docks, which argued it answers only to Port Metro Vancouver.

But the case ended quietly June 11 when Fraser Surrey Docks paid the fine and dropped the challenge.

“We paid the ticket just to focus our priorities and resources on other areas,” Fraser Surrey Docks CEO Jeff Scott said. “We still have some clarity concerns around the jurisdiction. We still believe the port is our regulator.”

The terminal operator has warned Metro that it could resume that fight in the courts if Metro were to ticket or prosecute it for any future air quality violation.

Scott said Fraser Surrey Docks will voluntarily apply for an air quality permit from Metro covering its operations – it has not sought one until now despite Metro’s insistence one is required.

Ray Robb, Metro’s manager of environmental regulatory and enforcement services, said he wanted to see the region win in court.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t go all the way with this one,” he said.

Robb said he believes Metro had a strong case, which has now been bolstered for the future because the company admitted its guilt in court and paid the ticket.

Nor is Metro shrinking away from further enforcement even though a new ticket could reignite the court challenge.

“We’ve advised them that continued discharge without a permit is contrary to our bylaw and they face the risk of potential further action,” Robb said.

“We remain of the opinion that our bylaws do apply. Their purpose is to protect human health. We will continue to pursue compliance with our bylaws.”

As for how quickly the controversial Surrey coal terminal – opposed by various groups and municipalities – could be up and running, Scott estimates January 2017 at the earliest, if all goes smoothly.

That would assume a construction start by this winter.

Before that can happen, Fraser Surrey Docks needs to get Port Metro Vancouver approval for its revised plan to load ocean-going ships directly in Surrey, rather than first barging coal to a transfer site at Texada Island as set out in the permit issued a year ago.

Environmental groups have said they don’t believe the $15-million coal export terminal will be economically viable after the recent plunge in coal prices, which has prompted many mines to curtail operations.

Scott acknowledged coal and other commodity markets are suffering right now, but added demand is expected to improve by the time the new terminal opens.

“We do believe there is a market in the future and that within the next couple of years we would see a resurgence and upward swing.”

The proposed coal terminal also faces court challenges from Ecojustice on behalf of Communities and Coal, as well as the Musqueam First Nation.

If built, the terminal would mean one additional coal train per day rolling through White Rock, South Surrey and Delta, delivering four million tonnes of U.S. coal per year, although critics fear it would expand further.

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