By Tom A. Watson
Much has been written and said these past few months about the shipping and handling of coal and community concerns around the issue of coal dust. As a toxicologist and biologist drawing on 36 years of experience with similar issues, I understand and recognize the importance of separating conjecture, innuendo and unsupported statements from scientifically robust data.
It is understandable some people would express concerns because of the known health problems encountered in the past by underground coal miners after many years of direct exposure to coal dust in confined conditions.
However, that is the past and the exposure to coal dust from today’s modern methods of mining and transport are in no way comparable to historical exposures for miners.
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.
Locally, in 1998, the Environmental Health Officer for the South Fraser Health Region (now part of Fraser Health Authority) conducted an on-site review of Westshore Terminals to “investigate potential health impacts related to the coal port …” at the request of the Corporation of Delta.
The investigation noted that data related to asthma and respiratory diseases “do not indicate a significant problem in the South Fraser Valley or Delta and that it is “unlikely that there is any health risk to the residents of South Delta from the operation of Westshore Terminals.”
Opponents of coal exports have cited the fact that coal contains numerous substances that are harmful to human health, neglecting to clarify that these substances are bound (or contained) within the matrix of the coal and are not absorbed through the skin or lungs.
The potential exposure to even negligible levels of coal dust is being misrepresented and exaggerated as having the potential for causing illnesses typically associated with long-term, lifelong occupational exposures to high levels of coal dust.
The province of British Columbia sets safe levels for occupational exposure to coal dust for people who work with coal every single day over an entire lifetime.
The existing Westshore and Neptune terminals operate well within these standards. The estimated levels for the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal, for example, would be up to 50 times lower than those limits.
It is not reasonable to conclude individuals exposed to these predicted and negligible levels of coal dust will be adversely affected.
In B.C., we have been mining and transporting coal safely for decades. It is not in anyone’s interest to lose coal during transport given it has value. Given the above facts and discussion, 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.
I believe the published information available to all of us supports the conclusion that coal can be handled and transported in British Columbia safely.
Tom A. Watson is president of Soleil Environmental Consultants Ltd. in Tsawwassen.
Full article originally published in the Vancouver Sun