Anne Murray: The failure of public consultations in B.C.

A year-end perspective

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      The Metro Vancouver Green Zone is gone—renamed the Urban Containment Boundary and assaulted by industrial developments of all kinds. The widespread public consultations that led to environmental and agricultural protection in the 1990s have been replaced in the last 20 years by increasingly aggressive tactics. Closed doors and backroom deals are now the norm in transforming our local landscape. Public input carries no weight in final decisions, which are driven by political ideologies far more than a search for best solutions. The results are a rapid degradation of the environment, the loss of food-growing land, and unwanted changes to existing communities. Here is a sample of some of this year’s more egregious events in Metro Vancouver and further afield.

      The South Fraser Perimeter Road (Highway 17) opened to traffic this time last year. Connecting five river crossings and touted as “improving community safety and quality of life”, the road saw numerous speeding infractions and five truck roll-overs in its first year of operation. The old highway (now 17A) was given two new traffic bottlenecks, including a difficult merge into fast traffic and increased congestion at the George Massey tunnel, adding time and stress to people’s journeys. A historic neighbourhood in North Delta was destroyed, displacing long-time residents. During the “public consultation” period, prior to construction, many sensible recommendations regarding the route and traffic volumes were made by people living in affected communities. They were completely ignored.

      The new highway was built to increase access to industrial land and to facilitate the growth of Deltaport at the mouth of the Fraser River. Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) has now started the environmental assessment for a second container terminal, Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (T2). During an earlier growth stage, PMV had denied there were any plans for T2, thereby avoiding extra cumulative environmental studies. Now, as required under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, a series of public consultations and studies has been undertaken. Such consultations follow a depressingly standard pattern. Port staff and facilitators go through handbooks of project concepts, designs, proposed environmental mitigations, and “issues”, with a choreographed selection of questions. There is no room to discuss whether or not the project as a whole is in the public interest. In the case of Terminal 2, the scope of environmental studies is limited to its immediate footprint, despite anticipated serious impacts on the Salish Sea’s ecosystem by greatly increased marine traffic. Economic forecasts presented as justification for the doubling of the existing port change frequently.

      The port is a multibillion dollar enterprise with a huge impact on the life of the Lower Mainland. As well as T2, many other land developments are forecast in the rush to turn the Lower Mainland into a Gateway to Asia. Environmental watchdogs are attempting to ensure that PMV behaves in a responsible, sustainable manner into the coming decades, but their voices go unheard in the corridors of power. Based on experience from other PMV developments and their associated programs of environmental and social mitigations, the whole public consultation exercise is pretty meaningless.

      Vast acreages of agricultural land are disappearing under concrete in the rush to industrialize the delta. Despite a local vacancy rate of nearly nine percent compared with the Lower Mainland’s average of three percent, speculators are rushing to create industrial space south of the Fraser. Several hundred acres of farmland near the railway have been optioned for port-related uses, squeezing out small farmers. The public no longer have faith in the Agricultural Land Commission’s ability to protect farmland for agriculture. Boundary Bay airport in the centre of Delta’s farmland is turning into an industrial hub. Even the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN) has joined forces with major developers to transform wildlife-rich potato and corn fields into a port logistics centre and two megamalls. These developments on treaty land needed approval by only a couple of hundred TFN members, though they will have more widespread impacts.

      In May, another local developer finally succeeded in pushing through his 900-housing-unit Southlands proposal, on the former Spetifore Farm in Tsawwassen, even though converting farmland to housing was in contravention of a recently-approved official community plan. Sean Hodgins of Century Group had scaled the project back from previous attempts and won some support, yet a majority of residents still wrote or spoke in opposition at public hearings. Nonetheless, Delta council voted for the proposal, influenced, no doubt, by the included transfer of some remaining farmland to the municipality. Despite their staff advising against it, the board of Metro Vancouver then approved amendment of their regional growth strategy, converting the agricultural land to urban use, thus setting a precedent for other areas.

      Many residents in South Surrey and White Rock were also out in protest this year, concerned about a proposal to transport thermal coal on trains from the USA and ship it from Fraser Surrey Docks. The coal will be loaded onto barges and taken across to Texada Island. This will be additional to exports from the Roberts Bank coal port. Citizens’ concerns relating to coal dust’s effects on human health and the environment went unresolved. Langley and Abbotsford residents do not want more two-kilometre-long trains passing through the centre of their communities. Nonetheless, the Fraser Surrey Docks coal transfer facility was approved by PMV in August.

      Elsewhere in B.C., public concerns also played little role in major decisions. Thousands of British Columbians gave hours of testimony to the National Energy Board (NEB) review panel last year, in opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline between Alberta and Kitimat. They questioned how the marine and terrestrial environment would be safeguarded, and the impacts on fish and wildlife, on local economies, and on First Nations’ land rights. For many of those speaking in front of the panel it was a difficult and intimidating experience. They had to sign up to speak many months ahead of their appearance date, but showed up anyway. It came as no great surprise when the NEB review panel recommended acceptance of the proposal, albeit with 200 conditions, and the federal government gave approval to the pipeline in June. Legal challenges by several First Nations and environmental groups have not yet been heard.

      At least, in retrospect, Enbridge had a relatively open public consultation process. For the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a lengthy NEB hearing process was dispensed with, by making it almost impossible to be accepted as an intervenor, or even to submit a letter of comment. The proposed twinned pipeline route passes through six provincial parks and Burnaby Mountain and terminates at Burrard Inlet. Tanker traffic through the inlet and Vancouver waters will increase ten-fold in the coming years, if this proposal goes ahead. Unable to legitimately have their voices heard at NEB hearings, environmental protesters chose to face mass arrest on Burnaby Mountain. No decision has yet been made by the NEB or federal government.

      All of these stories, and there are many more, illustrate the powerlessness felt by local residents in the face of huge changes to the look and feel of their communities. The landscape is being industrialized, agriculture is being squeezed out, wildlife is diminishing, oil spill risks are increasing, and our health and quality of life declines. Residents attempt to use legitimate conduits for protest but, all too often, final decisions fail to reflect the majority view. Elections do not effect change in any meaningful way. Feeling that democracy is not working, some people take to the streets in protest. Others just stay silent or move away. Yet we need the voice of the grassroots more than ever, to create truly livable and sustainable communities for the next generations.

      Anne Murray is an independent writer and naturalist and the author of two guidebooks to viewing nature and ecological heritage in the Lower Mainland—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay. She blogs at To purchase her books and to find more information on nature in the Lower Mainland, check out



      Public Consultation or Elections?

      Dec 9, 2014 at 12:07pm

      Its true that the green camp was not listened to but we would expect that from the BC liberals and conservatives.
      The same could be said for the separated bike lanes, the pro car camps were ignored but that would be expected from Vision.
      Do we listen to everyone or hold elections?

      Wilma Haig

      Dec 10, 2014 at 8:31am

      An excellent overview, Anne. has a report called "the Horrifying reason your fruits and vegetables are unblemished. We can't give up fighting for healthy food-growing areas

      Tough Luck

      Dec 10, 2014 at 9:45am

      "Consultation" does not mean the naysayers get to block the project. "Local opinion" is invariably against any change: ever notice how the most vociferous critics of a bridge to any of the gulf islands are the recent arrivals? Rail lines go through Abbotsford & White Rock and have since before any of the whiners where born. Buying cheap property out in the boonies comes with things like high density rail lines and highways: deal with it. Growth will continue regardless which drones are in power but the protesting class will be with us until life actually gets hard.

      Eliza Olson

      Dec 10, 2014 at 2:56pm

      "TOugh Luck" hasn't attended a lot of meetings and listened to the people. The people of Delta are very good at making alternate suggestions. For example, two Deltans with experience came up with an alternate route for the South Fraser Perimeter Road. They increased by four times to take into account inflation etc. and it was still a quarter of the estimated cost of the highway. I don't know if it is still up but gave all the details. It saved heritage homes and reduced the impact on Burns Bog. It was never considered. The Burns Bog Conservation Society was never opposed to the road--just its location. When you consider at least a third of the Black-tailed deer have been killed by being struck by trucks, motorcylces or other vehicles,their concerns are well-founded. The Road went through habitat of a subspecies of Southern Red-backed voles. The last time they were discovered in the Lower Mainland was over 50 years ago. "So what?" you say. Well in the scheme of things there is that so-called "web of life." Without the voles and other rodents eagles, owls and hawks would starve.

      There is a saying, "just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should."

      As for the past, that was then, this is now. We have greater knowledge of the impacts of our actions and as responsible human beings, we need to act accordingly.