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Conservation groups appeal B.C. port expansion, citing threat to orcas

Delta-based project will destroy 177 ha of salmon habitat, threatening orcas who feed on fish, groups say
Gantry cranes used to load and unload cargo containers from ships are seen at Global Container Terminals at Deltaport on Friday, July 7, 2023.

Conservation groups are in Federal Court Monday (June 24), challenging the approval of a Metro Vancouver port expansion that they say will devastate salmon populations and the Southern Resident Killer Whales that feed on them. 

The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project is set to add a new three-berth container terminal at the existing Delta facility, upping the overall shipping capacity by about one-third, or an additional 2.4 million twenty-foot equivalent units. According to conservation groups the David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Committee, the expansion will also destroy 177 hectares of Chinook salmon habitat in the Fraser River Estuary. 

The project got the go-ahead from the federal government in April 2023 after a decade-long environmental assessment process.

During that period, a review panel concluded that the project would have numerous "significant adverse and cumulative effects" on the environment, including on Chinook salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whales. It also found the project would negatively impact "the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by Tsawwassen First Nation and Musqueam Indian Band."

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority modified its plan following those 2020 findings and received approval last year. 

For the conservation groups, which are represented by Ecojustice, the altered plan still falls short, however. 

"This project remains a serious threat to biodiversity and long-term survival of species in the area. In light of the dramatic and irreversible environmental impacts this project will have on Chinook salmon and endangered killer whales, this project should never have been given the greenlight," they said in a joint press release Monday. 

The groups note that the Fraser River Estuary is home to more than 100 already at-risk species, including 14 populations of Fraser Chinook and the Southern Resident Killer Whales who depend on them. The whales are classified as endangered in Canada, with only 74 of them remaining as of December 2023. 

Earlier this year, a coalition of provincial and national environmental groups filed a petition with the federal government asking that it issue an emergency order to further protect the whales, who are also facing noise pollution, increased oil tanker traffic and pollution in the area. No such order has so far been made. 

The groups leading Monday's court challenge say port expansion and construction will threaten the orca population even further. They added that Canada's Species at Risk Act should protect at-risk species from such large-scale projects. 

"We argue that this approval is unlawful, and as such, it cannot move forward. We will continue to champion a thriving Fraser River Estuary that supports the recovery of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and over 100 other at-risk species. This is a place worth fighting for, one that whales, fish, birds and people have depended on for generations," Kristen Walters with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation said in a statement. 

Asked about the court challenge at an unrelated press conference in Chilliwack on Monday, Premier David Eby said the project plan that received approval last year includes hundreds of conditions to ensure environmental protection. 

Some of those include that the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority restore 94 hectares of offsetting habitat, build a fish passage for migrating juvenile salmon, develop a real-time whale detection program so construction activity can be stopped if they are near and make sure in-water construction doesn't happen when young salmon are moving through. 

"It was remarkable work that was done to minimize impact on the community," Eby said. "We need both. We need to protect nature and we need economic growth."

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority says the project will create more than 17,300 ongoing jobs and an estimated $3 billion in annual GDP. In a statement to Black Press Media, the port authority said it believes the environmental assessment process was "rigorous" and that the project "is critical for Canada."

Construction on the expansion is set to begin in the late-2020s and is expected to be complete by the mid-2030s.

The court challenge, which is being heard at the Federal Court in Vancouver, is set to run throughout the day Monday and Tuesday. 



About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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