Field Trip 2013: Neptune Bulk Terminals


2012 was a year for big projects.  The North Van Urban Forum has sought to bring transparency and consultation to the Low Level Road / Port Metro Vancouver Expansion Project throughout 2012, and as we enter 2013  we would like to continue that tradition, particularly in the face of so much expansion in the North Shore port area.

The Neptune Bulk Terminals expansion is one project that has provoked a lot of discussion of late.  The terminal exports 2% of the world’s coal and though the commodity is metallurgical grade, used to produce steel, in some quarters the morality of exporting this fossil fuel is being questioned.  In the spirit of ensuring a robust community dialogue on the topic, on March 20th the North Van Urban Forum will be hosting Kevin Washbrook of ‘Voters Taking Action Against Climate Change’, at the Cafe for Contemporary Art (140 Esplanade East).  We invite you to join us for an evening of lively discussion!

To answer some of our own questions in preparation, and to ensure a balanced perspective of the issues, the North Van Urban Forum recently went on a field trip to the Neptune facility.  We visited Neptune’s Bulk Terminal facility on the morning of March 2, to learn more about their operations and their community impact.  Our members were greeted by Neptune employees, who very generously offered their time to provide us with a Saturday morning tour.

Our site visit began at Neptune’s corporate offices, and we were later brought to their port-side operations from where they export metallurgical grade coal, potash, canola oil, and phosphate rock.  Our hosts explained the important role that North Vancouver plays in Canada, as the terminal generates 5% of every dollar that Canada generates through exports.  To their great credit, our hosts made repeated emphasis of their commitment to continuous improvement.  Jim Belshem, President of Neptune Bulk terminals, explained how senior management at the terminal has made an effort to consistently make operations better and to minimize community impacts.

The Operations Manager explained how sprinkler systems minimize dust by being integrated with three micro-climate stations that monitor weather and trigger sprinklers accordingly. In addition, Neptune has taken efforts to reduce water usage of this system. When the wind is persistent staff can spray out a sealant that ensures the product remains immobile. Neptune staff explained how important it is to Neptune to ensure dust is minimized and that the “product” is disturbed as little as possible during storage and loading of vessels. As residents of North Vancouver, our members were particularly concerned about coal dust in the neighbourhood and its health impacts.  Neptune worked hard to reassure us that they too take this concern seriously, and have toiled in order to mitigate these impacts.  It is interesting to note that according to Neptune, due to the expansion of the terminal there will actually be less coal on stored on site as more will be exported.

Neptune has also forged ahead to ensure diesel equipment used on-site is among the most efficient in Metro Vancouver’s new tiered registration program.  Examples include the locomotives that work with a system similar to a hybrid automobile to minimise emissions.  In addition, Neptune has been certified by Green Marine (, though North Van Urban Forum was unable to attain the level prior to publishing this article.

So the million dollar question: should we be exporting coal?  North Van Urban Forum wants to be part of an ever-greener future and based on our discussions so does the staff at Neptune. They argue that the exporting of metallurgical coal allows us to create steel for mass transit – both the rail cars and buses – as well as the re-bar that is fundamental to concrete construction.  Perhaps simplistic, but this is a valid point.  Importantly, the market for metallurgical coal is not divided between a few players and if Neptune were to stop being a supplier of coal world demand would be met by other international suppliers.  Crucially, the coal provided by Neptune comes from South Eastern BC and is comparatively cleaner (less sulphur) than much of the brown coal used to create steel in Germany and other countries, for example.

Neptune’s President, Jim Belsheim, repeated several times that the terminal is just trying to meet international demand – much of which is fuelled by all of our consumer habits.  Habits that cause us to buy the lowest price products, which might not be the most durable. This, in turn, fuels a continuous cycle of demand which Neptune supplies.  He advocates not for restricting supply but for each of us to change our habits to limit consumption.

Perhaps, indeed, this is the greater message that all of us together need to be spreading.