The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority has responded to the environmental impact report of a federally appointed panel last month, saying the findings - that the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project would cause significant adverse impact - are "sensible and workable."
Duncan Wilson, the port authority's vice president of environment, community and government affairs, added that his group anticipated much of what the panel listed as areas of concern. Wilson noted that the port authority is now viewing this as an opportunity to work with federal agencies and local communities to demonstrate what they believe to be a chance to show they can balance the port's mandate to facilitate trade and its environmental impact.
"I'd say that, overall, we are very pleased with the panel's report and their findings," Wilson said. "We think their recommendations are sensible and workable. In particular, we are pleased that the panel agreed with our assessment that the location for the project is the best possible option, and that's a real validation of the whole point of what we presented at the panel meetings on alternative means and different locations."
In its report in March, the three-member panel - appointed by Ottawa to carry out the environmental impact review on the proposed Terminal 2 container port expansion project - identified significant “adverse residual and cumulative effects” that the project would cause. But the panel also stated its view is that the “construction and operation of the proposed project do not pose major technical challenges” and “is consistent with Canada’s role as a trading nation.” As such, the panel said it concludes the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority was correct in assessing the project as the most appropriate way to increasing container port capacity on the west coast.
And while opposition groups and the local environmental communities have spoken out about the feasibility of building such an expansive project - estimated to cost anywhere from $2 billion to more than $3.5 billion, depending on who's providing the projections - Wilson said the current economic malaise stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak may actually give Ottawa more reasons to approve the construction of the facility (which includes creating artificial land to house the new container port).
"The current crisis, if anything, I think underscores the need for this investment on a number of fronts," he said. "Coming out of this crisis, there is going to be a need for economic recovery, and Terminal 2 is more than 12,000 jobs in construction - and then again that many in operations - so it will be a big stimulus project. Secondly, what we've seen in this crisis is that we really need a diversity of [shipping] options available to us to keep our country safe. We need to make sure we have our own ports to handle cargo."
Wilson added that the port authority is ready to work with federal agencies on providing more crab and fish habitat compensation offsets - something the panel report recommended after calling the existing project's mitigation measures - currently at 29 hectares versus a projected loss of 177 hectares of habitat - inadequate.
The Port Authority also added it is not worried that cargo traffic from U.S. rail networks fell significantly in the first two months of 2020, a figure that has been noted by some as signs that Canada's west coast port capacity demand may not be as strong as originally anticipated.
"I think we will see a short-term downturn in containerized imports just as a simple reflection of what's happening in North America with respect to consumer demand," Wilson said. "But as we come out of the COVID crisis, we expect that will return to normal levels... From our perspective, looking at Canada's west-coast trade capacity, we need all the expansions that Prince Rupert is planning and Terminal 2 in order to keep up with trade demand. We need Prince Rupert to be successful to expand capacity, but that alone is not enough."
Global Container Terminals (GCT) Canada, which operates Roberts Bank’s existing GCT Deltaport container terminal, has been extremely vocal about its own $1-billion Berth 4 - touted as a cheaper, more sensible alternative to Terminal 2. It is challenging the port authority on a conflict of interest for deferring a decision on Berth 4 until after the Terminal 2 decision - a move that simultaneously turns the port authority into GCT’s landlord and competitor.
"Recent events, such as global trade wars and the COVID-19 crisis, have demonstrated the need for a smart, nimble approach that is considerate of the market, local community and the Canadian public," the GCT response to the same panel findings said. "[High cost and excess capacity] could make RBT2 financially uncompetitive in the market, increasing the risk to taxpayers even further. "
GCT also noted that the port authority "has failed - twice - to find an operator for RBT2," noting the lack of operator interest further demonstrates "the lack of market confidence" in the Terminal 2 project.
Environmental groups have also stepped up their calls for Ottawa to put increased scrutiny on Terminal 2. On Monday, the David Suzuki Foundation released its own response to the findings, saying 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," said Jeffery Young, the foundation's senior science and policy analyst, in the statement. "Adding further impacts would drive them closer to extinction... We need Canada to invest in infrastructure projects that help rebuild Canada’s threatened and endangered species, not ensure they continue toward extinction."
The panel's recommendation is now under consideration by Environment and Climate Change minister Jonathan Wilkinson and could then be passed up to the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for debate before a final decision - expected later this year around August - is made.