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?”

Comments (39) Add New Comment
It is a shame that with the exception of a few individuals,all levels of government (municipal, provincial, federal and First Nations) are so focused on reaping economic benefits that they can't look at the bigger picture.
They really should be looking at ways to maximize the agricultural viability of the area. So many people would love to buy local fruits and vegetables, if only they were more readily available. This whole plan will negatively impact the health of residents twofold: one by taking away potential for local, health food and two by replacing it with dirty ports, clogged with emissions and sewage. It just isn't right, the TFN should be ashamed for their part. Their ancestors are churning in their graves.
Rating: +76
There's something in this article that doesn't add up here: Indian reservation land is not part of the the ALR. So either this mall is located on reservation land (and thus not on existing ALR) or it's on existing ALR land which means it's not reservation / Indian land. If it's the latter, how can the Tsawwassen Nation own non-reservation land? (was it awarded as part of land claims). From what maps I have seen, the mall is not on Tsawwassen Nation lands.
Rating: -21
The statements from Port Metro Vancouver CEO, Robin Silvester, make it clear he wants to industrialize the Agricultural Land Reserve in Delta and Richmond. He finds it funny that Canadians want to preserve our precious 5% fertile farmland. He is an uninformed newcomer to Canada who asks where else container port expansion can take place. The answer is Prince Rupert, one of the deepest harbours in the world. The inland rail transportation route already facilitates Prince Rupert's growing container business. With expansion at Prince Rupert, BC can facilitate growth in the container business and, at the same time, retain our best farmland and internationally significant habitats for salmon, migratory birds and orcas.
Plans for container port expansion at the mouth of the Fraser River are all about greedy exploitation of cheap farmland for land development and highly lucrative real estate deals. It is about empire building by publically-owned Port Metro Vancouver which acts like a big self-important corporation without any of the accountability that is demanded of private business. Private companies are not allowed to destroy farmland and vital habitat. Port Metro Vancouver doesn't even pay decent property taxes. Port expansion at Roberts Bank and industrialization of Delta and Richmond farmland is NOT about sensible economics and appropriate planning. It is about self-serving, unaccountable opportunists exploiting public assets. Shame on the federal government which allows this publically-owned crown corporation to plunder and ruin irreplaceable farmland and habitat by presenting bogus statisitcs and meaningless environmental assessments that pay lip-service to protection. To this date the public has not been provided with a credible feasibility study for either the South Fraser Perimeter Road or the Deltport Third Container Berth which was completed in 22?.,both part of the Lower Mainland Gateway Scam which is costing billions in wasted tax dollars. Is there any way we can stop this insanity?

Rating: +81
Martin Dunphy

As stated in the article, 400 hectares of ALR land were taken out of the reserve for the TFN to develop (or not) however they pleased.
Rating: +36
In the Tsawwassen First Nations (TFN) 2006 Treaty, the TFN were granted 919 acres of crown land that was in the Agricultural Land Reserve. As part of the Treaty, 531 acres were removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve. So yes, the TFN is planning to build on 531 acres of farmland that was removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve as part of the TFN Treaty process. The TFN own a further 388 acres of land that is still in the Agricultural Land Reserve. You can Google ‘Mega-malls unveiled by Tsawwassen First Nation’ to see a map that shows the ALR lands and the plans for mega malls, housing and an industrial park.
Rating: +13
The irony that China thinks they can import food from Canada is part of this insanity. Living in Delta and trying to fight against Gateway has given me the feeling that we live in a communist country. Things as small as cutting down trees that the eagles sit in has caused chaos for these magnificent birds. Has anyone seen an eagle that has been electrocuted because it sat on a power pole because it's normal tree has been removed? It takes more than a week for them to die an excruciating death. If they are lucky they are taken to a vet to be killed humanely.
This development is killing the very sensitive pacific flyway. Does no one care?
Rating: +50
GASP! You want to develop Prince Rupert instead of Delta?? Why, that means people might actually HAVE TO MOVE away from the lower mainland!!
Rating: +16
Stop it now before it is to late.
Rating: +37
What's a few bird species compared to the potential of all that profit sitting, tax free, in an offshore account, joining the other $35 Trillion already there? After all, we are killing off 100+ species every day globally.
Rating: +17
As well written an article as this is, for me, it lacks context:
Are the people behind the Port expansion oblivious to the Peak Oil phenomenon? Is the global economy suddenly going to recover so that everything is just fine? Let's be serious and let's talk like adults for a moment: Despite the silly proclamations about the abundance of fossil fuels under every hill, examination of the facts indicate that usable fossil fuels are increasingly scarce and that we as a civilisation are having an increasingly difficult time paying off the interest that has accrued on all of the development that has occurred since WWII. Hence the Global Recession. There will be no expansion of trade in goods, because every day factories are being shuttered and the whole ugly mess that we've created is screeching to a standstill. If we want to invest in STRANDED ASSETS, then these megamalls and container handling facilities might make sense, but who could be that dumb?

The other piece missing from the discussion is the effect of rising sea levels pushing up through the soil to turn Richmond and Delta into a swamp.
When we fail to look closely at context it's easy to overcommit resources to projects that might once have made sense. Like a family who moves from their 1200sqf home to a 4000sqf home just as the kids are old enough to leave home, because they've been dreaming all these years of not living right on top of one another.

The only trade that's likely to expand over the next few decades, as the stresses caused by Climate Change and rising fuel costs transform our priorities, is the trade in food and the means to grow food. And this trade is likely to be predominantly local. I would invest every cent that I own into projects that expand our local, organic food growing and processing capabilities because hungry people are going to give whatever we own for something to put in their stomachs
Philip Be'er
Rating: +24
Wally Martin
We actually turned our parking lot into an organic vineyard
here at Princess and the Pea B&B Langley
Rating: +26
Steve in Steveston
There's plenty of irony here, especially where Harold Steves is involved. His taxpayer-paid junkets to China actually laid the groundwork for the trade between Canada and China, which has, in turn, created the need for greatly expanded port facilities. Also, readers may want to check out the remnants of the Steves Farm, along the west dyke at Steveston Highway in Richmond, where he recently subdivided a portion of his precious farmland for, wait for it... mega houses!
Rating: -9
Roger Emsley
We can stop Port Metro Vancouver building its Roberts Bank Container Terminal 2 in South Delta and thus destroying Roberts Bank – one of the most important ecosystems on the North American West Coast. All that is needed is a groundswell of opposition from people across the lower mainland, making their opposition known to politicians. We will soon have an election in BC – make sure that you ask those standing for election what their position is on this port expansion and let them know that if they support it you will not be voting for them. A new BC government can stop this from happening so we need to make sure that the next government in BC opposes this development. This is not just a South Delta issue – if this port expansion goes ahead the whole of the lower mainland will feel its impacts. Air pollution will worsen, wildlife will be destroyed, and the Fraser River fishery will be impacted. There is a much better alternative and that is Prince Rupert. It has a container terminal, has plenty of room to expand, needs the jobs that would go along with it and provides a better and faster route between Canada and Asia. A 2008 Federal Government Study recommended that no further port expansion take place in the lower mainland until Prince Rupert’s port facilities have been maximized. So why is Port Metro Vancouver ignoring the government recommendations? Speak up people – loud and often.
Rating: +34
jean e.
Unfortunately, as long as folks continue to shop at mega malls and buy 'stuff' the powers that be continue to want to import more and more.
As we near peak oil (whatever thast really means) and as lands go under waster (which is a reality) I cannot help but think of the wasted money being spent on what will in probably a short time become a 'dinosaur'.
At Christmas I asked my sons if they did any of their Christmas shopping at a 'mall'. Answer, why would we go to a mall?. We hate them. We buy on line or at smaller local stores, or places like L'Occitane (specialty store).
I did most of my shopping in South Delta at smaller stores or Thrifty's..amazing what one can find here without going in a car and driving to a mall and lining up at the tunnel!

The last line of the article really got me -- Chinese saying they will get their food from Richmond. What will Asia do when Richmond's farm land is gone to development?

It was so sad to learn yesterday that Canada ranks highest in its garbage output. No wonder..with so many shopping malls around more and more garbage gets produced as people continue to buy stuff in excessive packaging, and while they are at the malls they walk around with coffee in a single use throw away container..and on and on it goes. Where will it stop?
Rating: +14
@Steve in Steveston - FYI Harold Steves did not own all the parcel by the dyke that was divided and sold for the housing development. The sold part belonged to his family members. He kept his own and still has a farm there. And this is naive to suggest that anyone trip to China could have any substantial influence on the trade between our countries when other much bigger players keep selling off our land and resources without any consideration to the long term damage it could do. They only care about the short term profit and will be gone with the money much faster than Richmond and Delta port go under water.
Rating: +18
One day we will transport our goods using enormous balloons drifting on atmospheric winds. Calgary will be a manufacturing and shipping centre while Vancouver's port will be replaced with reams more condominiums
Rating: -8
Susan hodges
Might I remind everybody that Ashcroft has not any response from port metro Vancouver on its bid to become an inland port. Mr. Silvestor is very much aware of where elsewhere could be. Reference the Tsawassen First Nation land gifted to them by former premier of bc, Gordon Campbell. This land was in the ALR. Then premier Campbell removed land from the alr and made it crown land. Upon the signing of the treaty he then gifted Tsawassen First Nations this land. Only it was not a gift to do with as they pleased. It came with the rider that it could only be used for Economic development.
Rating: -9
Marilyn Sparkes
With all the energy being expended over the Southlands development, I believe the port expansion will much more negatively impact South Delta. Please, I urge you all to direct some of your energy towards stopping this expansion. As far as Southlands is concerned, I would like to see taxpayers collectively purchase this land from the developer if we want it to remain in its natural state in perpetuity.
Rating: -2
former Delta resident
And this my friends is why the gov't expropriated acres and acres of farmland from our parents in the 60's. And ripped them off when comparing to today's real estate values.
Rating: -2
Eric Doherty
This kind of short sighted 'development' is a great way to cook the planet and submerge low lying cities including Delta and Richmond. From a climate point of view, building freeways, mega malls, coal ports and container ports on agricultural land is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Like sub-prime mortgages, the 1% will try to make big money by creating a disaster for everyone. But the climate crisis is far worse than the financial crisis; it is one thing to be figuratively 'under water', and another to literally be under water.
Rating: +29


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