06/13/2013 11:49 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Will you breathe it in? Coal dust health fears

The controversial plan to build a new coal terminal at Surrey Fraser Docks has the region's chief medical health officer raising health concerns.

If approved, four million metric tons a year of coal from Wyoming and Montana would be loaded onto barges on the Fraser River and towed to ships waiting on Texada Island in the Georgia Strait, then loaded onto freighters travelling to Asia.

- The CEO of Surrey Fraser Docks says the expansion is vital

Fraser Health Authority chief medical officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder is calling for an assessment to figure out the possible health risks associated with the project.

"The barges travel up the river for 12 hours, not all of them have dust suppression as part of the proposal. There will be a lot of impacts associated with the increased train travel,” he said.

“We think that there needs to be a full assessment of this. We understand that would mean that this doesn't commence during this summer but we think that it's important that the proponent and the regulator listen to the community's concerns."

Van Buynder says large amounts of coal dust can affect people with lung problems and pregnant women.

"We're disappointed with the extent of the information provided to the health department and we think that the modeling that we've seen is insufficient to be confident that there won't be health impact,” he said.

“We think it's likely that this will be a safe proposal but we are aware of significant community concern."

Van Buynder says he could use legal powers under the Public Health Act to push for a health impact assessment, which would potentially set the project back.

The board of Metro Vancouver is set to meet Friday to hear from the port and the public before voting on whether to oppose the proposed expansion.

- Read about public opposition to the expansion plans

Van Buynder is hoping to voice his concerns at the meeting, but the health authority missed the deadline to sign up to speak by one hour.

Wyoming governor planning visit

Meanwhile Delta South Independent MLA Vicki Huntington is raising concerns about an upcoming visit by Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and representatives of several U.S. coal companies with Port Metro Vancouver officials.

“The U.S. coal industry sees Port Metro Vancouver as their chance to export millions of tons of coal to Asian markets. The coal dust, environmental and public health questions being asked in Washington State and Oregon are the questions we should ask before we become the North American coal export gateway,” Huntington said in a statement released on Thursday.

Huntington says the U.S. is looking to Vancouver as a port to export coal because several previous proposals were rejected by citizens of Washington and Oregon.

“Widespread public opposition has challenged export plans in Washington State and three projects have recently been cancelled in Oregon. The U.S. industry now has the potential to turn Metro Vancouver into the biggest coal export zone in the western hemisphere,” she said.

“Until we have peer-reviewed studies into the impact of coal dust, we simply cannot consider increased exports. It’s a public health concern first and foremost.”

Several municipal mayors around Metro Vancouver have already expressed opposition to the project, but Port Metro Vancouver has the final say on the project. A decision is expected in the next few months.

- Read more about municipal opposition to the coal exports