One recent evening, I was on the Queen of Nanaimo ferry as a huge pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins churned the waters in a heart-stopping display of agility. Everyone rushed to watch; a passenger caught it on video and made the evening news. Just 15 minutes earlier, a family group of orcas had cruised past us in Active Pass, a young one gamely keeping pace with its mother. The beauty and excitement of watching marine mammals near my home is what makes living in British Columbia so special. It is also why I feel so disheartened by the constant stream of developments that threaten our coast. How easy it is to destroy the natural world, but how very, very difficult to put it together again, once lost.
Take Port Metro Vancouver’s $2-billion Roberts Bank Terminal 2 proposed for highly sensitive wildlife habitat near the mouth of the Fraser River. This location already has the three-berth Deltaport for container shipping and North America’s busiest coal export terminal at Westshore Terminals. Developments on the upland, such as the $1-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road, rail track additions, and the controversial optioning of Agricultural Reserve Land for logistical centres, are part of the overall Gateway Program, which aims to make the Lower Mainland, and Delta in particular, a West Coast transportation hub. The proposed Terminal 2 would double the size of the existing container terminal and include an offshore artificial island and expanded causeway. This would impact the whole ecosystem of Roberts Bank and the mouth of the river, as well as the Gulf Islands, the San Juans, and the entire shipping route through the Georgia Strait.
Roberts Bank is exceptional wildlife habitat, supporting a range of animals from juvenile salmon to western sandpipers. The waters are rich in marine mammals, including grey whales; endangered southern resident killer whales, or orcas; harbour and Dall’s porpoises; and two species of sea lion. Humpback whales are once again a regular sight after an absence of nearly a hundred years. There is an existing port here, but do we really need to double it? The environmental risks are enormous and the economic projections are far from convincing. There are also high cumulative risks, because many other developments are under consideration.
As just one example, the port causeway would be lengthened and widened. Ever since its construction it has altered the stability and shape of the sand banks at the mouth of the Fraser River. It blocks the flow of fresh water into the estuarine marshes and makes a fatal barrier for juvenile salmonids trying to access rearing areas in eelgrass beds to the south. It should have been converted to a culverted structure years ago, to allow water flow, but each berth expansion makes that possibility more prohibitively expensive and thus less feasible.
Where some people see valueless mud and marshes—a perfect spot to build a busy port—others see a global treasure. The members of B.C. Nature are birdwatchers, botanists, marine biologists, and general nature enthusiasts. Their grassroots organization includes 53 nature clubs around the province and they have been active in critiquing development at Deltaport since its inception. In a submission to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, B.C. Nature strongly recommends that the scope of the Terminal 2 environmental assessment be widened to include not just Roberts Bank but the waters of the Gulf Islands, San Juans, Haro and Juan de Fuca straits, and out into the North Pacific. This wider approach is required in Washington state, where the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point had to undergo a much broader geographic assessment than the one Port Metro Vancouver is proposing.
B.C. Nature and other conservation groups also want more consideration of the cumulative changes that have occurred at Roberts Bank. Every previous addition to the causeway and pods (artificial islands) has had a marked effect on intertidal fauna and flora. Development on the mud flats has impacted the western sandpiper, a once prolific small shorebird, of which much of the world’s population migrates from Alaska to South America via Roberts Bank. Feeding ferociously on microscopic biofilm sucked from the mud, these little pipers need every ounce of energy to help them complete their journey. Less food means less energy, and that means dying before they reach their winter destination. Their numbers have declined, and so have other species that use this area. Invasive species, such as cord grass, have proliferated. Such cumulative impacts have to be examined by independent, peer-reviewed scientists before we risk any further industrial expansion in the intertidal.
Cumulative impact assessments must also consider all other planned port expansions in the Lower Mainland. For example, a controversial coal facility is proposed for Fraser Surrey Docks on the South Arm of the Fraser. It would import American thermal coal to be barged downriver and across to Texada Island, then shipped overseas. The health and environmental effects of transporting coal by train through the Lower Mainland are great cause for concern to many people. There is also the additional impacts on the Fraser estuary from increased shipping. A jet fuel facility servicing the Vancouver International Airport on the Richmond shore of the South Arm has just received approval, and an expansion to Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal on Burrard Inlet in Burnaby is being proposed. This terminal ships crude oil. Kinder Morgan is planning to twin its pipelines from Alberta and increase its oil shipments from three percent of existing traffic through Port Metro Vancouver to 14 percent, an additional 700 ship transits. In addition to all this Lower Mainland activity, the clock is ticking towards a year-end decision on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, that would see Alberta bitumen shipped through the narrow channels and rough waters of B.C’s north coast.
The growing, cumulative impact of oil tankers, coal shipments, and container terminals, in waters that are also used by passenger ferries, recreational boats, and cruise ships, needs much more attention than it is getting. How can we hope to maintain our ecologically-rich seascape, with whales and dolphins, beautiful beaches, and shorelines worth millions in tourism dollars, if B.C. waters become a crowded shipping superhighway?
Earlier this year, two sightings of rare North Pacific right whales, the first in 62 years, occurred at the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait and off Haida Gwaii. Much conservation effort has gone into saving whales over the last five decades. We cannot afford to ignore the many threats to our marine wildlife. British Columbians should stand up and make their voices heard.