Anne Murray: Who is looking after the Fraser River's estuary?

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      During the decade of the Harper government, many important environmental programs and safeguards were dismantled. Government scientists were unable to speak up about issues, environmental laws were weakened, and important working groups were terminated.

      Notable among these was the multi-agency Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP), which, together with the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (BIEAP), was responsible for such tasks as baseline mapping of estuary habitat and coordinating project-review applications.

      When the doors closed at the FREMP-BIEAP offices on March 31, 2013, after 28 years of operation, the role of coordinating project reviews was handed to Port Metro Vancouver (PMV), the leading proponent of development in aquatic habitat in the Lower Mainland. It was a classic case of the fox looking after the hen house, with the potential for strong conflicts of interest.

      PMV, also known as the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, is the largest port in Canada and is accountable to the minister of transport, under the Canada Marine Act. It manages more than 16,000 hectares of water, over 1,000 hectares of land, and about 350 kilometres of shoreline, from Roberts Bank and the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet.

      Its mandate includes planning, real estate, safety, project environmental review, permitting, and infrastructure development designed to facilitate trade through Canada’s west coast gateway. The Port is not concerned with the overall, cumulative effects of development on the Fraser estuary’s world-class fish and wildlife, and it is only required to pass the bureaucratic thresholds of environmental assessments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012.

      PMV’s lead role as review coordinator was meant to be temporary, “until a new form of partnership was developed and launched”. Three years later, the port corporation still holds the coordinator position while simultaneously driving many major building projects in the Fraser Delta. The B.C. government is taking a hands-off approach to environmental assessment, despite several areas of provincial jurisdiction that should be addressed. Some projects are even sliding through without proper federal or provincial environmental reviews.

      It is high time to form a new multi-agency coordinating body to take over responsibility for the environmental protection of all habitats and wildlife in the Fraser River Delta, estuary, and adjacent waters. The Fraser is the world’s greatest salmon river, and it is in the top 50 heritage rivers globally. The estuary is critical habitat for fish and wildlife: a BirdLife International Important Bird Area, host to internationally significant flocks of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway and Canada’s largest wintering habitat for waterfowl and birds of prey, and a regular foraging area for endangered southern resident orcas.

      Without independent oversight, these amazing assets are at risk of extinction.

      The timing is particularly urgent, with a newly elected federal government just finding its feet, coupled with the out-of-control proliferation of major projects under consideration. These include: PMV’s three-berth Terminal 2, which will double the size of the Roberts Bank container port (currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment panel review); the $3.5-billion bridge replacement for the George Massey tunnel, which will be designed to accommodate tankers moving to upstream terminals; the proposed WesPac Tilbury Marine Jetty project, currently under B.C. Environmental Assessment Office review; and a fourth runway for Vancouver International Airport that could intrude into Sturgeon Banks.

      Other new projects on the Fraser River include: the Surrey-Fraser Docks direct-transfer coal facility; a Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation (VAFFC) fuel-delivery system approved for the South Arm of the Fraser in Richmond; and the major expansion to FortisBC’s Tilbury liquid-natural-gas (LNG) facility that was approved by B.C. government order-in-council without an environmental assessment.   

      Not only do these megaprojects undergo incomplete environmental assessments, they also lack transparent and credible cost-benefit analyses. Although they are portrayed as benefitting the Canadian economy, millions of tax dollars fund the required infrastructure while the public is excluded from planning and evaluation processes. The results are contracts that guarantee long-term financial benefits to vested interests.

      Delta farmland, already heavily impacted by sprawling housing developments, industrial-size greenhouses, and the purchase of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land for speculative purposes, is disappearing under blacktop. The South Fraser Perimeter Road, now Highway 17, facilitated traffic flow into the heart of delta farmland and further fragmented the agricultural land base. The price of farmland is well beyond the reach of most active farming families, who, typically, rent many of the fields they work. Irreplaceable transitional habitat and farmland of Burns Bog were also destroyed as the highway cut through unprotected bog lands. 

      Roberts Bank was designated as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in 2011, 16 years after Boundary Bay and Sturgeon Banks achieved WMA status. Included were 8.770 hectares, but more than 2,200 hectares of equally important habitat were omitted, presumably to allow for non-WMA uses in future. Similarly, designation as part of the Fraser Delta Ramsar Site, or Wetland of International Importance, has to date been withheld for Roberts Bank.

      More than 1,600 hectares of Delta farmland were expropriated by the provincial government in 1968-69 for port industrial purposes. These Roberts Bank back-up lands were leased to farmers until the late 1990s, at which point some of the lands were offered to farmers for buy-back.

      The remainder of the lands were transferred to the Tsawwassen First Nation as part of their treaty settlement in 2009 or were added to the existing rail right of way by B.C. Rail as part of the Deltaport Terminal Road and Rail Improvement Program. Over the past five years, many hectares of the former back-up lands have been optioned or changed hands, as speculative investments driven by port development. PMV as a federal entity may use ALR land for non-farm uses.

      The Tsawwassen First Nation has partnered with major developers to construct two megamalls on their once fertile farmland and wildlife habitat near Roberts Bank, and further hectares are being developed for industrial infrastructure and housing. Much of Richmond has already been developed for housing and commercial uses; now some of the remaining farmland along the South Arm of the Fraser River has been purchased outright by PMV.

      PMV’s CEO, Robin Silvester, has made it clear that he views the Agricultural Land Reserve as “emotionally but not economically important” to the region and that more should be done to make industrial land available. This viewpoint is contradictory to those who recognize the importance of growing fresh food close to our population centres, especially in view of climate change and food-security concerns.

      In 1988, a jet-fuel facility project on the river in Richmond was rejected by an environmental-panel review on the grounds that highly toxic and flammable fuels posed an unacceptable risk to public safety. Yet in 2014, a jet-fuel offloading, storage, and transfer facility and connecting pipeline to Vancouver International Airport were approved by the provincial government for PMV-leased land on the banks of the Fraser River in Richmond. Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada played no role in the assessment process, for which PMV was the key federal participant.

      The Fraser estuary is in deep trouble. The integrity of every hectare of this once magnificent wildlife habitat is threatened by the many cumulative developments. The rich farmland of the delta, the best growing area in Canada, is rapidly being speculated out of existence. With a land-use agenda driven by transportation and port interests, the low-lying delta lands of the estuary need a moratorium and a plan. If the Fraser River salmon and the shorebirds of the Pacific Flyway are to survive, we must have a true consideration of all the cumulative impacts of these ports, airports, industrial complexes, housing developments, rail lines, highways, and bridges.

      A new coordinating multi-agency group is needed to address the environmental challenges of the Fraser River estuary and its surrounding lands and waters. Port Metro Vancouver should no longer have lead authority over environmental reviews and approvals. A stronger, more effective Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) would be backed with realistic financial support, adequate staff, and the power to ensure meaningful environmental assessments on all large projects. Its responsibility would be nothing less than the ongoing survival of the area’s native wildlife and the habitats needed to support them.

      In the 1990s, Environment Canada created the Fraser River Action Plan. Environmental-quality programs were initiated to clean up pollution, monitor the health of the river, and study such issues as sedimentation transport and its environmental implications in the lower Fraser. Detailed scientific reports were produced and distributed, and annual status reports gave information on achieving targets.

      In 1993, “A Living Working River”, a management plan for the Fraser River estuary, was prepared by the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP). It aimed to improve environmental quality in the estuary while providing economic-development opportunities and sustaining the quality of life in and around the estuary. Despite work on biodiversity conservation and some habitat acquisitions in the next 20 years, this overall vision and coordinated action has now been lost; economic-development opportunities are being fast-tracked while estuarine habitats and quality of life are continually degraded.

      In the early 2000s, even the provincial government was interested in producing annual reports on environmental trends in B.C., including biodiversity, climate change, toxic contaminants, water, and human health. It was not long before staff were fired and departments closed. The demands of energy and the rush to become a “gateway” to the world took priority over environmental concerns.

      A comprehensive environmental-sustainability plan, based on the cumulative effects of all proposed development projects, is urgently needed to protect the ecological integrity of the Fraser River estuary and the wildlife that depend on its habitats. The best means of achieving this overall perspective and regulatory role is the creation of a new and stronger Fraser River Estuary Ecological Management Program.