Opinion: Critics of coal shipments are misinformed

B.C. can’t afford to lose 26,000 jobs supported by the coal industry

By Mark Gordienko, Steve Hunt, Brian Cochrane and Tom Sigurdson,                               Special to the Vancouver Sun November 27, 2013

Our unions’ members are responsible for mining and transporting metallurgical coal from British Columbia to markets overseas. So we welcome the positive Environmental Impact Assessment released Nov. 18 by Port Metro Vancouver on the proposed Fraser Surrey Docks expansion.

The study, by experts such as Dr. Leonard Ritter, Professor Emeritus of Toxicology at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences, shows that many complaints by environmental groups and others are misinformed or exaggerated.

The Environmental Impact Assessment states: “The project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental, socio-economic, or health effects, taking into account the implementation of the main risk mitigation measures described above, in addition to mitigation measures, construction and operation management plans, best management and standard practices.”

These conclusions match our experience in safely transporting coal for over 40 years.

This is important to us as unions because the mining and export of B.C. metallurgical coal for steel manufacturing in other countries is a critical part of the provincial economy, as is transportation of thermal coal.

It provides good, family-supporting jobs for thousands of our members, who along with their employers, pay municipal, provincial and federal taxes that support health care, education and other valuable government social programs we all depend on.

Overall, coal creates 26,000 direct and indirect jobs, $3.2 billion in economic activities and $715 million in tax revenues for the province and B.C. municipalities every year.

But recent comments in the media have questioned the mining and export of coal for a variety of reasons, including health.

We are not medical doctors but we are democratically elected by our members to be responsible for their health and safety.

And as the unions whose members mine, load and transport coal by rail to ports and ship it overseas, we can say with certainty that coal dust and exposure have simply not appeared in our members as a health issue.

Safety is our primary concern and we believe that the measures taken to limit and reduce coal dust exposure to far below levels established by government have ensured our members have safe workplaces.

Those workers and their families are also residents of Metro Vancouver and other B.C. communities who often live near the coal mines, rail lines and port facilities where they work.

So we not only have responsibility for workers when they are on the job but when they go home as well.

Put simply, if our members’ health were adversely affected by coal or exposure to dust, we would know and we would be the first to demand action.

Unfortunately, the goals of many environmental groups and others who oppose coal port expansion go far beyond the issue of fugitive dust emissions; their objective is to end the extraction and use of coal, as well as other fossil fuels, over climate change issues.

Improvements can and are being made to more efficiently use coal for steel production and power, including carbon capture and storage systems.

But to tell developing nations to shut their factories, turn off the heat and go home in the dark is fundamentally unfair. It would only cause huge economic hardship for people struggling for a better life.

It is up to them to find appropriate ways to transition to more environmentally effective power sources, not for us to impose our solutions from a privileged position far from their challenges.

It’s also clear that even if B.C. stopped coal exports immediately, producers in other countries would fill the market demand.

As unions, we believe in continuing to improve health and safety and meet all environmental laws.

But we also know that the workers and people of British Columbia cannot afford to lose 26,000 jobs created by the coal industry or see dramatic cuts to needed government services that are funded by taxes paid by workers and companies.

Mark Gordienko is President, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada; Steve Hunt is Director, United Steel Workers District 3 [Western Canada]; Brian Cochrane is Business Manager, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115; Tom Sigurdson is Executive Director, B.C. Building Trades.

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