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Aug 21 (Reuters) - Port Metro Vancouver, Canada's largest port, said on Thursday it has approved a new facility to transfer coal from trains onto barges at Fraser Surrey Docks, a decision that followed lengthy public scrutiny over the project's environmental and health impact.
After a permitting process lasting more than two years and including environmental impact, air quality and other human health assessments, the port said it found no "unacceptable risks" in allowing the $15 million project to move forward.
The Fraser Surrey Docks terminal would handle up to 4 million metric tonnes of coal from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co (BNSF) each year, loading it on barges bound for Texada Island, north of Vancouver, where it would be transferred to large vessels for export.
Documents published last year by the port, which is a corporation established by the Canadian government, said the expansion would bring in one more train and two barges each day.
Cheap natural gas and tighter regulation has hurt coal prices in the United States in recent years, prompting more producers to look overseas for customers.
Port Metro Vancouver, which handles some $172 billion in goods traded between more than 160 countries, announced new requirements for the project last fall including prohibiting on-site coal storage and making barges take extra measures to prevent coal dust from escaping while in transit.
The moves were in response to public concerns about air quality and health issues due to coal dust exposure.
The new facility is expected to begin operating in the fall of 2015, said Jeff Scott, the chief executive of Fraser Surrey Docks, which is the largest multipurpose marine terminal on North America's West Coast. (Reporting by Solarina Ho and Allison Martell; Editing by Paul Simao)