Federal panel report shows environmental costs of port expansion are too high


After four years, a federally appointed environmental assessment panel officially recognized that a proposed Vancouver port expansion project carries significant environmental risks — including impacts on endangered marine species, including southern resident orcas and Chinook salmon. Ship strikes, increasing underwater noise and harm to Chinook salmon that nourish the orcas put their future in jeopardy. The interacting, cumulative effects of these impacts create a danger bigger than the sum of its parts.  

The proposed Terminal 2 expansion would include a new container facility built on an artificial island adjacent to the Roberts Bank terminal in South Delta. 

It’s encouraging that the assessment panel heard the concerns of scientific experts and environmental organizations. With most of us now focused on our own health, families and livelihoods, it is sometimes difficult to remember that orcas and salmon still face serious threats to their survival. We are grateful for our supporters’ continuing commitment to survival and recovery of orcas and Chinook salmon and hope the panel report will drive definitive actions to address those concerns. 

The environmental assessment panel agrees that Terminal 2 expansion will have a significant negative impact on juvenile Chinook salmon. The noise, light and physical footprint of this project would disrupt critical areas where they rear and find food and shelter. Most of the Chinook salmon that rear and migrate near the terminal have been identified as threatened or endangered, requiring the greatest levels of protection and recovery to ensure they are not lost. 

British Columbia has experienced poor salmon returns in recent years, and the Big Bar landslide on the Fraser River last year prevented even more fish from making it up the river to spawn. The port expansion will affect Chinook salmon, which in turn will harm the orcas that feed on them, at a time when the whales are already having a tough time getting enough to eat.  

According to the panel’s report, the terminal expansion would result in more ships travelling through and docking in the critical habitat of southern resident orcas, causing further degradation of the ecosystem they rely on for survival. They will experience more noise interference, a greater chance of a ship strikes and fewer fish to eat. The southern resident orca population is already at a critical low of 73 members, so even a single lethal vessel strike could have significant adverse consequences. In the worst case, an oil or fuel spill could result in additional harm beyond those identified from normal operations.   

The report makes it clear that the Terminal 2 port expansion would further deteriorate the conditions that have led to declining southern resident orca and Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea. Already, noise and habitat and food-source disruptions are making it difficult or impossible for southern resident orcas to recover. Adding further impacts would drive them closer to extinction.  

The panel also found that at least four First Nations near the terminal would likely experience “significant adverse” effects on their culture and traditional use of lands and resources. Indigenous groups described to the panel their special relationship with southern resident orcas as an iconic species at the heart of their spiritual and cultural identities. Others rely on fishing in the areas potentially affected by the expansion.  

As the government considers the panel’s report, it should recognize that the environmental costs of the Terminal 2 expansion project are too high to ignore. We will urge the Government of Canada to pay attention to these concerns in making a final decision on the project, expected in late August. We need Canada to invest in infrastructure projects that help rebuild Canada’s threatened and endangered species, not ensure they continue toward extinction.

This article by Jeffrey Young originally appeared in the David Suzuki Foundation on April 3, 2020.

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