Mining News

BC coal faces growing demand abroad and opposition at home

Posted by Alana Wilson on 7/31/2013 1:50:36 PM

By Alana Wilson  

India’s demand for British Columbia’s metallurgical coal is growing, as reported in an article by Gordon Hoekstra in the Vancouver Sun. Metallurgical coal is used in steelmaking and the Indian government forecasts that it will need twice as much of this coal by 2017. This represents an additional 47 million tonnes of metallurgical coal and is double the current BC annual production of 24 million tonnes.

British Columbia currently exports $5.7 billion worth of coal per year. Exports to India were valued at $161 million in 2012 (up from zero in 2010), but remain small relative to British Columbia’s shipments to its leading coal export destinations: Japan ($1.55 billion), China ($1.39 billion), and South Korea ($989 million) in 2012. This growing demand could bring large economic benefits for the province as BC has vast reserves of coal estimated at 13 billion tonnes. According to the MABC, the coal supply chain (from mining to port city) is responsible for more than 26,000 jobs in BC and the industry contributed close to $400 million to government revenues in 2011.

Yet not everyone is happy about this growing industry. Environmental groups and some residents are concerned over coal’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, increased rail traffic, diesel emissions, and dust. In early July, Vancouver's city council voted voted to ban the handling, storage and trans-shipment of coal at marine terminals and berths –although it has no control over Port Metro Vancouver which is the second largest exporter of coal in North America.

While environmental concerns merit informed and open debate based on sound science and empirical evidence, many of the health effects of coal transport have likely been overblown and are misinformed. For example, during the debate at Vancouver city council, Conservative MP David Wilks of Kootenay-Columbia spoke to the importance of metallurgical coal to the District of Sparwood where it contributes $2.8 million in taxes each year and “about 90 per cent of the people there have jobs that are somehow related to the coal mining industry”. Wilks also pointed out how steel made with metallurgical coal can support Metro Vancouver’s goal of “green” residential density. In response, Vision Councillor Kerry Jang voiced concerns over coal shipments traveling along railways near schools in Vancouver and said to Wilks “so you make all the money and my daughter gets cancer”.

This type of statement is distortionary to say the least and harmful to informed and open public debate. Tom A. Watson, toxicologist and biologist with 36 years of experience responded to these concerns in a commentary to the Vancouver Sun. He pointed out:

“The reality is that the Canadian government, through Transport Canada, does not consider coal to be a dangerous good. In fact, both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) determined in 1997 that there is inadequate scientific evidence in humans or animals for the carcinogenicity of coal dust. […] It is my view as an experienced scientist with a working knowledge of the management and handling of coal that the potential health risks of coal being transported and handled near residential communities are negligible.”

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