Anne Murray: Billion-dollar boondoggle? Port infrastructure upgrades need accountability
Billions of dollars are being spent on container port expansion at Deltaport, despite stagnation in container traffic. Many of these funds are public money. Officials at Port Metro Vancouver claim that future growth will justify the current exponential expansion, yet they have failed to demonstrate the urgency for such a huge public investment. Deltaport, Canada’s largest container port, is currently operating at only 56-percent capacity. At a time of financial constraint for many families, it is reasonable to expect accountability from federal and provincial leaders regarding both the need and the speed of these projects. Instead, developments are being fast-tracked, with minimal public discussion or consultation, and inadequate environmental oversight.
The latest public contribution is the $50 million that Premier Christy Clark announced in September for yet another rail corridor upgrade to Deltaport. Her choice of spending may not jibe well with families struggling with education, health care, and housing costs. Nor will it please those concerned with the escalating loss of agricultural land or the rapid degradation of the environment. The rail corridor is part of a long string of past and projected upgrades to Deltaport, one of Port Metro Vancouver’s three port areas. Upgrades include $200 million for the “Deltaport Terminal, Road and Rail Improvement Project”, of which the provincial contribution is part; $307 million for the “Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program”; more than $1 billion for the South Fraser Perimeter Road, which is still under construction; $400 million for the completed Third Berth construction; and a projected $2 billion for the proposed Terminal 2, which would double the size of the existing port and is at the “pre-consultation” stage. Canada’s Pacific Gateway project is a consortium of federal, provincial, port, and transportation interests encompassing all port activities including bulk shipping. By 2020, this project will have spent a further $12 billion on port, rail, and road infrastructure connecting Canada to Asia, with a goal of investing $15.6 billion.
The average citizen will pay heavily for years for these infrastructure developments and yet see little return for their dollar. The construction of Deltaport on Roberts Bank has caused massive environmental effects. Rare marine wildlife, such as orcas, internationally significant numbers of migratory birds, and Fraser salmon populations, have all been affected by degradation and loss of habitat. Air, noise, and light pollution have all increased. Habitat mitigation and compensation have been inadequate or not followed up on project after project. At the local level, residents of Delta are undergoing disruption to their community and the huge loss of good quality farmland. An increase in the number of trucks on roads, bridges, and through the Massey tunnel have meant misery for commuters throughout the Lower Mainland, a problem unlikely to be alleviated by the South Fraser Perimeter Road. Construction is not the only issue: the introduction of foreign trade zones into B.C., proposed as part of the Gateway initiative, surely requires some public discussion. Few dissenting voices for these massive infrastructure expenditures are heard among federal and provincial politicians, other than Delta’s two MLAs, Vicki Huntington and Guy Gentner, who have asked questions in the legislature.
Port Metro Vancouver’s “Container Capacity Improvement Program”, encompassing the transportation and port upgrades, will more than double its container handling capacity. Yet, despite the industry’s optimistic projections of high growth through the coming decades, container volume at Deltaport is not increasing. Even if the world economic situation improves, other factors, such as the opening of the Northwest Passage and the widening of the Panama Canal, could affect demand. Prince Rupert’s port is also open for business, offering a competitive alternative. Demographic and public attitude changes can shift markets in unexpected ways. There is now much stronger interest in locally grown food and a greater understanding of the impacts of large developments on environmental sustainability. On what basis are federal and provincial governments supporting and fast tracking Deltaport’s exponential growth? The GDP and jobs provided are not exceptional compared with other employment sectors, yet the amount of critical oversight seems to be considerably less.
The “Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program” is currently undergoing a screening environmental assessment. The public were given a scant two weeks—completely inadequate time for the task—to comment on the description and scope. Public consultation meetings are to be held in late 2011 and will only address mitigation and compensation, not whether the project should proceed. In a classic example of the fox watching the henhouse, the federal government has delegated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in ports to the port authorities. The environmental assessment for the rail corridor, and for all other Deltaport infrastructure developments, should rightly be conducted by an independent review panel. These projects are clearly part of one overall plan to industrialize the Fraser River estuary, and the cumulative environmental affects must be assessed. Instead, by splitting the projects, an independent review has been avoided in favour of less rigorous environmental assessments.
Enormous projects with multi-jurisdictional scope and funding are challenging for the public to address. Yet it is these large, landscape-changing initiatives that require the most diligent public oversight, the greatest political and financial accountability, and the most rigorous environmental screening. We should insist on this for every component of the whole Pacific Gateway program.
Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C.