Delta expansion projects threaten farms and wildlife
From the crest of this obscure bridge over Deltaport Way, the enormity of what’s about to happen here seems impossible to exaggerate. To Harold Steves, 76, one of the founders of the province’s 1973 Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) system, calamity looms. “That’s gone. That’s gone. That’s gone,” he tells me, gesturing first at a colour-coded map, then at the real South Delta farmland around us.
On this stormy late-October day, nothing is gone. Yet. Turbaned men harvest pumpkins on a nearby farm. Thousands of migratory snow geese occupy plowed and puddled fields. But the pumpkins and the fields and the geese are about to disappear as work begins on one of the largest construction projects in Canadian history.
And to the southeast, the ALR lands in that direction will also disappear if the Tsawwassen First Nation’s (TFN) deal with Ivanhoé Cambridge Inc. and Vancouver’s Property Development Group comes to fruition. For over there, the second-largest shopping complex in Canada is about to be built. Exceeded in size only by West Edmonton Mall, the TFN’s gargantuan, Coast Salish–themed Tsawwassen Mills/Tsawwassen Commons megamall will feature hundreds of stores and hectares of parking space. Goodbye, farmland; hello, Toys “R” Us.
But that is, to Steves’s mind, the least of it. For directly below and to the west of Delta’s 41B Street overpass is the real story: the proposed $10-billion Terminal 2 expansion at the Roberts Bank Superport, which now consists of two terminals, the Westshore coal facility and the Deltaport container operation.
With little opportunity to increase industrial capacity along the prohibitively expensive Burrard Inlet waterfront, Port Metro Vancouver—which is the name of both Canada’s largest and busiest port and a federally established corporation—is set to quadruple its container import-export capacity at Deltaport in the coming years. After all, China beckons. Politicians genuflect before the god of perpetual economic growth. Unions see jobs. Developers see real-estate possibilities. Tsawwassen Natives see dollar signs. Profits—despite sanctimonious statements otherwise—trump environmental policy. Farms are expendable; ditto snow geese.
In fact, for the prime agricultural land below the bridge where Steves stands, a 135-hectare industrial park is slated. Below, too, will be six to eight new sets of train tracks to serve the enlarged port. And the mysterious series of bridges now under construction over Highway 99 and Highway 17 just south of the Massey Tunnel is part of the new 40-kilometre-long South Fraser Perimeter truck route, built specifically to service the new terminal.
All told, more than 400 hectares of Class 1 agricultural land in Delta will be lost to port expansion. Another 100 hectares will succumb to residential units slated to be built on TFN land adjacent to the megamall. “That’s the best soil in Canada,” says Steves, incensed by the shortsightedness of corporate capitalism. “You’re looking at the Richmondization of Delta.”
Steves says that when he protested in 2011 to Robin Silvester, president of Port Metro Vancouver, that Terminal 2 would harm the province’s agricultural future, Silvester told him: “You don’t have to worry about food security for B.C. Give us the land in Delta and we’ll use it to import food.”
Here, then, is the crux of the impending conflict, both for Delta and for the planet. Two contradictory views of the future are about to collide. Worldwide, deltas of great rivers like the Nile, the Mekong, the Fraser—in all, the source of much of Earth’s food—are under assault as inexpensive agricultural land succumbs to industrialization, suburban sprawl, and relentlessly rising ocean levels.
What happens in Delta will, for better or worse, provide a preview of how the 21st century will unfold. Will it be increasingly globalized, processed-food production and distribution or more locally grown food? Will it be sprawl, malls, and highways or urban densification, neighbourhood shopping, and public transit? Will it be estuaries for port and industrial development or estuaries for agriculture, migratory birds, and fish habitat?
Only the most naive would say history is on the side of nature. Yet as agricultural activist Steves, South Delta MLA Vicki Huntington, former B.C. minister of agriculture and Delta Farmers’ Institute president John Savage, Delta mayor Lois Jackson, and numerous farmers whose front yards contain signs reading “Farms not Ports” told me, they’re determined to prevent Delta from becoming “Richmondized”, its soil and wildlife habitat lost to development.
These critics fear Silvester’s port expansion will precipitate precisely that. And, often speaking with great political delicacy, these same people express sadness that the Tsawwassen First Nation would join Silvester in jeopardizing the Fraser estuary, a place that has sustained the Natives there for more than 4,000 years.
To Port Metro’s Silvester, these fears—given the scope of what lies ahead—are understandable. But the case for shifting much of Vancouver’s future container capacity to Delta is overwhelming.
The argument hinges on a single word: land. In 1968, in a report titled Our Southwestern Shores, the province first contemplated converting the Delta estuary into a gigantic port facility. With agricultural land cheap there, W. A. C. Bennett’s Social Credit government made the case for doing then what is now about to be done. The 1968 proposal said: the undersea Roberts Bank would be dredged; a causeway-linked industrial island would be created; and the adjacent Delta farmland would become rail yards and warehouses. (This failed plan contributed directly to the fall of Bennett’s Socreds in 1972 and to the NDP’s creation of the ALR the following year.)
Silvester knows that what applied regarding the usefulness of Roberts Bank 45 years ago applies even more now. Only the stakes are higher. And the opposition will be more intransigent.
Today, with a single post-Panamax-class ship capable of carrying 13,000 containers, with Asian economies growing at five percent annually, with far less industrial land available along Burrard Inlet than in 1968, and with the federal government realizing that Canada’s economic future lies increasingly across the Pacific, Silvester believes that Delta’s location and its cheap land meet the urgent commercial needs of the oncoming Asian century.
Seated, on an overcast day, in his Port Metro Vancouver waterfront office with its panoramic view over Burrard Inlet, the 44-year-old Silvester argues the case for Delta’s Terminal 2 construction. “It’s fundamental to Canada’s economy. If we don’t grow the port there, we lose opportunities. We lose trade. We can’t grow the port here,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder to where container cranes, moored ships, piles of sulphur, and waterfront condominiums fill the harbour’s shorelines. “Delta will see a lot of benefits.…And with the new Tsawwassen First Nation treaty—and their new lands—it’s synergistic for the Natives. They have land we need for trains, for trucks, for container storage, for warehouses.”
I ask him about the ALR farmland lost to these developments, reading back to him his oft-quoted words from a 2011 BCBusiness magazine interview: “Agriculture is emotionally important but economically [of] relatively low importance to the Lower Mainland. And in terms of food security, [it] is almost meaningless for the Lower Mainland.”
He laughs, saying that he would phrase that differently now, but he remains obdurate. “Agriculture is only one part of food self-sufficiency. We’ll still have to import a lot of stuff. UBC’s William Rees—the ‘ecological footprint’ guy—says the carrying capacity of the Lower Mainland, foodwise, is about 75,000 people. We’ve got, what… a couple of million? We’d have to eat a lot of salmon and berries to survive here without imported food.”
I tell him that Delta’s mayor, Lois Jackson (after I confronted her with Steves’s vision of the “Richmondization” of Delta), expressed concern about the port project’s effect. It could, she fears, lead to the gradual loss of Delta’s agricultural way of life. I tell him South Delta MLA Vicki Huntington supports the Terminal 2 plan but only in principle, not if it entails further loss of Delta’s ALR lands and migratory-bird habitat. (Speaking succinctly, she said of the project: “Mr. Silvester: be gone!”) Like these political leaders, like Steves and Savage, a lot of local citizens, I tell him, think it would be best if the port expansion were put elsewhere.
“Elsewhere!” he says. “Elsewhere? Where elsewhere?”