The Fraser delta, on Vancouver’s southern doorstep, is a wetland of international importance, a gathering place for salmon, waterfowl, shorebirds, and whales, and for people. It has rich, productive farmland, some of the best in Canada, yet under the wide open skies, nature struggles for space. Snow geese feed in school yards and orcas swim among container ships. Pumpkin and blueberry fields compete for space with shopping malls, golf courses, and housing developments. The delta landscape, recently designated as a UN Ramsar site for its critical wetland values, is changing rapidly, powered by agencies and policies that destroy the environment and ignore community concerns. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the actions of Port Metro Vancouver, whose determination to push through operational expansions on a massive scale, has many Delta residents enraged.
It was standing room only, when 200 people rallied in the heart of Delta to voice their concerns about the port’s plans for their community. Residents are just beginning to wake up to the huge changes that are reshaping their local landscape, changes that are driven in large part by the port’s overly ambitious business projections and poor record of listening to local communities. Branded by the federal and provincial governments as the “Gateway to Asia”, the once-agricultural municipalities of Delta and Surrey are being ripped apart by a string of new highways and overpasses, expanded rail lines, and acres of depots with teetering stacks of containers. Many attending the information rally, organized by local groups, expressed frustration with the powerlessness they feel in the face of so much change in their once-rural community.
As presenter Roger Emsley characterized it: “There is a dark cloud hanging over South Delta.” Farmland is disappearing fast and with it goes fresh, local food sources, food security, and wildlife habitat. The death knell for the farmland and wildlife is the looming presence of Deltaport Terminal 2, a proposed 115-hectare artificial island perched off the end of the existing superport on Roberts Bank, with expanded causeway, rail access, and associated facilities. Truck traffic will increase exponentially. The Roberts Bank superport currently houses Port Metro Vancouver’s three Deltaport container berths, alongside Westshore Terminals’ coal facility. Two berths opened in 1997 and the third in 2010. Coal exports are also expanding. Each expansion has seen an increase in the size of the road and rail causeway, blocking the natural tidal flows in the estuary and disrupting the movements of juvenile salmon. Power lines along the causeway’s length are a hazard for the fast-flying flocks of shorebirds that feed in the Roberts Bank intertidal zone. The tidal flats to the south are eroding physically and ecologically, taking with them the sand banks and biofilm that sustain hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Bright lights shine into the sensitive estuary waters throughout the night, and massive container ships travel the narrow inland waters of the Gulf Islands and Georgia Strait, home to orcas, porpoises, and grey whales. Light pollution has a deeply detrimental effect on the natural biorhythms of organisms, and the collision risk for cetaceans increases with shipping traffic.
The port is not the only development threatening the farm fields and internationally significant wetlands of the delta, but it is the major driving force. Daniel Woods vividly described the changes underway in Delta, in a recent Georgia Straight article. When the Tsawwassen First Nation’s landmark treaty with B.C. and Canada took effect in 2009, 124 hectares of their land was earmarked for port-related, industrial uses. The TFN are also building two very large shopping malls on former farmland near Highway 17. A development company, Lamington Heights, has optioned 226 hectares of Agricultural Land Reserve between the highway, the B.C. Rail line, and the TFN lands, for a port-associated logistics centre. A multi-track rail yard is planned. The Boundary Bay airport is expanding to accommodate more industrial facilities.
The $1.2-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road chewed up 40 kilometres of delta farmland and Burns Bog edge habitat, before plowing through woodland bluffs, archaeological sites, and historic homes in North Delta. The road is part of the Gateway Program, designed to deliver trucks to and from the port. It took a controversial route, opposed by local citizens, including Delta council, and its design has gone through several iterations. It has been destructive of habitat, displacing sandhill cranes, endangered southern red-backed voles, and Pacific water shrews. Conservationists concerns were ignored, as were requests for information on habitat mitigation and compensation.
Numerous housing developments are also sprouting up, detached from, or peripheral to existing urban centres, exasperating urban sprawl and traffic congestion, and causing community conflict. There is no overall, coherent vision for livability or environmental protection in the delta. Metro Vancouver’s Green Zone lies in ruins.
Many of these changes are being forced upon South Delta residents with no opportunity for genuine public hearings or votes. The public consultation undertaken by the various aspects of the Gateway Program (South Fraser Perimeter Road, Third Berth, Terminal 2, road and rail upgrades, et cetera) has been a carefully-managed presentation of equally unwelcome “options”, conducted by consultants or junior staff members. A recent pre-consultation session for Terminal 2 began with a question about an engineering detail! At no point have the senior proponents or political boosters placed themselves within listening distance of a public meeting with an open microphone. If they ever do, they should be prepared for an earful, as people are becoming very upset.
Furthermore, as Emsley and others so clearly described at the rally, the latest port expansion, with its multibillion dollar price tag, is not justifiable on economic grounds. There has been no proper cost-benefit analysis done of alternatives, the port operates at only 60 percent capacity, and container traffic is failing to reach even moderate growth projections. There are many options for increased capacity within Port Metro Vancouver’s various terminals without Terminal 2. With Prince Rupert and the Panama Canal also experiencing expansions, the demand for the Lower Mainland container ports may decline. The port must explore alternative operating scenarios that ensure the protection of farmland and wildlife habitat. Federal and provincial governments and Metro Vancouver must urgently develop and enact a consistent, clear, and workable vision for how they intend to protect the internationally important wetlands and uplands of the Fraser delta.
Lower Mainland residents need to find their voices: it is not too late to set a fresh agenda for our priceless Fraser delta. The public consultation process is inadequate, the message needs to take to the streets and to the politicians’ offices. We have chosen to live here, it is our home, and we value it. We value the sandpipers, the orcas, the salmon, the farms, and the ocean. We do not want them destroyed to satisfy a stubborn agenda of industrial growth at all costs. In speaking up for these values, we may yet save the remnants of our rural landscape as a lasting legacy. It is time that we were heard. Is anyone listening?