Myriad major threats to Salish Sea in proposed BC port terminal expansion - Salish Current
October 19, 2023
Myriad major threats to Salish Sea in proposed BC port terminal expansion
Derek Moscato

A 450-acre terminal expansion proposed at Roberts Bank will increase the cargo capacity at the Port of Vancouver site by more than 50%, or 2.4 million shipping containers annually. Thousands of cargo ships like this one, sharing a narrow Salish Sea passage with a pod of orcas, transit local waters each year. (Monika Wieland Shields photo © 2015)

October 19, 2023
Myriad major threats to Salish Sea in proposed BC port terminal expansion
Derek Moscato


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Word from Victoria earlier this fall, that British Columbia’s government had issued an environmental assessment certificate for the proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2) project in Delta, has mostly flown under the radar on both sides of the U.S./Canada border. The certification puts the port expansion project, which sits less than a mile from the Washington state border in the heart of the Salish Sea region, one step closer to becoming a reality.

In its late September announcement, the B.C. government juxtaposed economic benefits with a myriad of ecological and social concerns. They include cumulative effects on the Fraser River watershed, impacts on plants and animals, industrial noise, emergency response issues, greenhouse gas emissions, plus industrial spills and other environmental emergencies. First Nations’ rights and ecological stewardship also loom large over the project.

One might be surprised that a certificate was issued given these serious concerns. But the province argues that it doesn’t have much say in the matter, short of pursuing conditions for the issues noted above. B.C. lawmakers argue that the project lies “almost entirely on federal lands, within federal jurisdiction and (is already) approved by the federal government.”

Ottawa knows that business is good at the Port of Vancouver, which is already Canada’s largest port by a wide margin, and regularly places among the top 10 ports in North America by cargo volume. Canada’s federal government has staked its economic claim to a massive increase in trade through the West Coast, and specifically at the Roberts Bank location. Victor Pang, the port authority’s interim president and CEO, pointed to “encouraging rebounds” in key areas of trade and a “robust” container business overall. According to Pang, “Canada’s population, economy and trade continue to grow, and containerized trade through the Vancouver gateway increases under the federal government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

Ramping up this global commerce may indeed help fill Ottawa’s coffers and provide a jolt to the Canadian economy, while delivering promised jobs for B.C. But the project’s scope, effectively constructing a second industrial island to sit alongside the current Roberts Bank facility, deserves attention beyond the business pages of Canada’s major dailies.

By expanding its footprint by 450 acres, the Port of Vancouver will increase cargo capacity by more than 50%, or 2.4 million shipping containers annually. This translates to more than just increased maritime cargo movement in the Salish Sea, though that is a major part of the story. It also means more pressure on already-strained road and rail infrastructure on both sides of the border. And that comes on top of threats to biodiversity, wildlife habitat, maritime safety and air quality. That’s why Ottawa has subjected the expansion to 370 legally binding conditions, including provisions for fish habitat and protecting marine mammals, including the threatened Southern Resident orcas.

At the same time, community impacts — tribal, transboundary, cultural and commercial — deserve further deliberation. Roberts Bank sits next to B.C. communities like Tsawwassen, Ladner and Richmond, but is also a short distance from Point Roberts, Washington, and by extension coastal Whatcom County. Immediately due south and west from the terminal are the maritime communities and ecosystems of the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. One of the challenges for these affected areas is fostering more discussion in public forums. This author’s recent report for the Salish Sea Institute notes that the transboundary nature of Roberts Bank and its continued growth over the past half-century has counterintuitively brought less attention to it than other infrastructure projects with far less-pronounced ecological implications.

While local, regional and tribal media have done admirable work in bringing attention to the issue, there’s much more public dialogue that needs to happen, particularly at the national level. Given its existence as a federal enterprise in a shared watershed, RBT2 deserves more attention from the U.S. national press. The New York Times provided some attention in 2021, focusing on the Lummi Nation’s longstanding challenge to the project. But that guest opinion essay was an outlier. More coverage on the advances of the project is warranted to ensure that RBT2 doesn’t exist within a news shadow, a phenomenon in which cross-border stories fall under the national radar. A second opportunity for transboundary deliberation is in cross-border environmental advocacy, which can help connect citizen voices to lawmakers in Victoria and Ottawa, but also Olympia and D.C.

The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion represents a complex and challenging development for all stakeholders in the Salish Sea basin. Its transboundary location, straddling the borders of multiple jurisdictions, means that the expansion story runs the risk of being framed thematically for short-term considerations while overlooking the bigger story. It’s time for citizens from across the Salish Sea region to come together and holistically assess the long-term implications of this historically significant infrastructure project.

For more: “Supply chain narratives in the Salish Sea’s transboundary ecosystem: new media and public positioning of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion,” CEDAR, Salish Sea Institute, Western Washington University

— Contributed by Derek Moscato

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