Proposed Roberts Bank terminal will add cargo capacity — but at what cost to Salish Sea

The proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 as proposed by the Port of Vancouver would enlarge
the port’s shipping capacity but may also put the Salish Sea’s endangered orcas, salmon
and other wildlife at peril. (Port of Vancouver artist’s rendition)

By Kimberly Cauvel 

Updated Aug. 26, 2020.

In the shadow of the contested Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion is another major Canadian infrastructure project that could bring major changes to shipping traffic in waters shared by British Columbia and Washington. 

This lesser-known project, a proposal to build Roberts Bank Terminal 2, would enable Canada to move another 2.4 million shipping containers per year through its southernmost terminal about 1 mile from the Washington state border. 

Ed.: On August 24, 2020, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change requested that the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority provide additional information in order to inform his decisions under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project. The federal timeline within which a decision must be made is paused as of Aug. 24, 2020, and decision-making will be extended by virtue of this information request.

Already, at Roberts Bank, coal from Canada and the U.S. is shipped to Asia from Westshore Terminals and shipping containers move goods to and from Canada at Deltaport Terminal. Those facilities are also adjacent to the Vancouver ferry terminal Tsawwassen. 

The Trans Mountain Pipeline project now under construction is poised to bring 350 more ships per year to a port in British Columbia. If approved by the Canadian government, Roberts Bank Terminal 2 could either bring several hundred additional ships to the region each year or replace existing transits with supersized vessels, according to iterations of project documents.  

Through Canada’s environmental review of the project, a federally appointed three member panel released a 627-page report in March. That report states Roberts Bank Terminal 2 would have significant impacts on the orca, the salmon and other components of the Salish Sea, but does not suggest they can’t be mitigated. 

It’s now up to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson to decide whether the environmental impacts are significant enough to refer the project to the cabinet of top leaders in Canada. If approved, the port says the project would take about six years to build. 

‘Very little public awareness

A coalition of state-side environmental groups is campaigning against the project because of impacts more underwater noise and increased oil spill risk in the already busy traffic corridors of the Salish Sea could have on orcas, the chinook salmon they rely on for food and other wildlife. 

“Projects that originate in Canada can have huge impacts of significance to us in the U.S. portion of the Salish Sea. There is very little public awareness about this project here in Washington state, so we just felt compelled to try to raise awareness,” Lovel Pratt of the nonprofit Friends of the San Juans said. 

letter signed by representatives of 41 groups, from local groups such as the Bellingham-based RE Sources for Sustainable Communities to the national Natural Resources Defense Council, was sent to Gov. Jay Inslee last week urging him to oppose the project. 

“The environmental review for this project did not adequately address project-related impacts to Washington state’s environmental, economic, and cultural resources; public and private properties; and Tribal Treaty Rights,” the letter states. 

They argue that’s important because Washington and B.C. share the Salish Sea — a body of water braided between the islands of both territories and unbound by human borders.  

Large commercial ships transiting through
Haro Strait and Boundary Pass — key foraging
areas for the southern resident killer whales —
are asked to voluntarily slow down to the
recommended speed for the ship type
during times when resident killer whales
are present. (Port of Vancouver)

The project area is between about 3 and 7 miles from where the forks of the Fraser River spill into the Strait of Georgia. It’s about 3.5 miles from the Washington community of Point Roberts, and about 20 miles as the crow flies from Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve where a proposed 350-acre coal terminal was met with a fight about a decade ago. 

That U.S. coal terminal was never built. Environmental groups and Native American tribes against the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 proposal that would cover about 440 acres in the Fraser River estuary hope it meets a similar end. 

“We are going to fight any project that is going to bring increased ship traffic to the Salish Sea,” Lummi Nation fisherman Ellie Kinley said during an October 2019 presentation to a Bellingham organization. “We don’t even know if the traffic that’s out there now is too much. We don’t know if we’re past the tipping point for a healthy Salish Sea.” 

Crucial to trade, or health risk?

The Port of Vancouver, also called the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, has been working toward Roberts Bank Terminal 2 for years. According to the project website, studies began in 2011 and environmental review in 2013. The project was conceived even farther back in 2002, according to one of the consulting firms involved in project planning. 

While the project has garnered little attention in the U.S. over all that time, discussions have been underway in B.C., with groups lining up behind familiar environment versus economy positions. Some have called the project vital to the economy and “crucial to support Canadian trade,” while others have called on the government to reject it on the basis that it “puts human and environmental health at risk.” 

The project would enlarge one of several operations of the Port of Vancouver, which already is Canada’s largest port. It would include construction of a new three-berth terminal adjacent to the existing Westshore and Deltaport terminals off the shore of the City of Delta. The project website highlights Canadian lumber and food products as some of those likely to be moved through the facility, which the port says is needed to meet a projected increase in demand for export and import capacity. 

Duncan Wilson, the port’s vice president of environment, community and government affairs, said the deepwater terminal would not be designed to handle Canadian oil products or accommodate cruise ships. “It’s just purely a container terminal,” he said. 

The berths built at Roberts Bank Terminal 2, however, would be able to accommodate larger ships than are currently able to dock at Vancouver ports, according to a project fact sheet. That could allow the amount of goods moving through Vancouver ports to increase by 33% without increasing the number of ships delivering them.  

“The container vessels are getting larger, we are not getting more of them,” Wilson said. “We don’t believe Terminal 2 will result in more ships coming to British Columbia, it just means they will be stopping at Roberts Bank, instead of coming further to other ports, and then turning around and going back out.” 

The project would create about 12,000 temporary construction jobs and about 1,500 permanent operations jobs, according to the project webpage. It would also bring $1.2 billion to Canada’s GDP and funnel $200 million into government taxes each year. 

While the terminal wouldn’t offer an economic benefit to Washington, it would pose risks to marine life the state has invested billions of dollars trying to preserve. Several tribes in the state say it could also infringe on tribal treaty rights and put cultural resources in harm’s way. 

“Lummi Nation is in a position of ‘No’ on the Roberts Bank project — a strong ‘NO’,” former tribal chairman Jay Julius said in a video filmed in May 2019. “We need a moratorium on stressors to the Salish Sea. We need to fix the wrongs we have done in the past before we move forward with development.” 

The Lummi are the closest Native American tribe to the site of Roberts Bank and have already seen impacts from ships moving to and from the terminals there today. As the ships pass, they send swells that are dangerous for smaller boats on the water. 

“We were chum fishing up at the north end of San Juan Island and a big ship went by,” Kinley said of an experience in the summer of 2019. “It was a calm, beautiful day, no waves at all … then we saw this huge 8-foot tall wave coming at us.” 

Survival threat

Southern Resident killer whales. (Holly Fearnbach, NOAA)

Environmental organizations in Canada have also called for a stop to the project. 

“The proposed footprint for the project extends into habitat critical for many species in the region, including Southern Resident orcas, wild Pacific salmon and migrating birds,” the Georgia Strait Alliance wrote. “The proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion project threatens the survival of at-risk species in the Salish Sea.” 

The port, however, suggests it can protect the environment by building the terminal in deeper water offshore, restoring habitat elsewhere as mitigation, avoiding construction during seasons when salmon are in the water, and offering monitoring services and funding for chinook salmon projects. 

“This is not something we take lightly — we have a federal mandate to protect the environment and consider local communities, and we want to build this project in a way that upholds that mandate and aligns with our vision to be the world’s most sustainable port,” an April 7 statement reads. 

The port’s Wilson said the port has experience mitigating impacts to marine wildlife, in particular building habitat for young salmon and operating an ECHO program that monitors underwater noise from shipping vessels to inform ways to reduce impacts to orcas. 

“Every year we now have slowdowns in Boundary Pass and Haro Strait … by slowing the ships down you minimize the amount of noise, which minimizes the disruption to whales,” he said. 

State’s concerns

The recent letter from the coalition of U.S.-based environmental groups asks Inslee to address the project with the Canadian government “on behalf of Washingtonians and the environmental, cultural and economic resources of this state.” 

It’s unclear whether Inslee will take direct action in response to the letter penned by Friends of the San Juans and others. As of Friday afternoon, the letter — dated Aug. 20 — was new to the governor’s office. 

“We have not had time to review this letter. We’re aware of the project and the state has expressed both concerns about the project’s impacts and the recommendations for reducing risks from vessel traffic and spills,” the governor’s Deputy Communications Director Mike Faulk said. 

The state Department of Ecology summed up concerns in letters submitted during Canada’s environmental review process. They raise particular concern with the potential for oil spills and impacts to orcas. 

“A collapse of this species will result in unprecedented ecosystem consequences that cannot be overlooked,” an April 15, 2019, letter says of the endangered whales. “Protecting this species from increased vessel noise and a potential oil spill is crucial.” 

Ecology’s letters also urged safety measures should the project be built, some of which are similar to those proposed in the environmental groups’ letter. The recommendations include tug escorts, speed reductions, funding for an emergency response tug vessel located in Washington and reciprocal agreements for cross-border emergency response in the event of a spill. 

“We believe the full scope of concerns from this project has not been addressed,” the agency said. 

Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.