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Comment: Take closer look at shipping effects in Salish Sea

This past week’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver provided an in-depth look at the threats facing this ecologically, economically and culturally important marine environment.

This past week’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver provided an in-depth look at the threats facing this ecologically, economically and culturally important marine environment. 

As the recent Raincoast Conservation Foundation report Our Threatened Coast: Nature and Shared Benefits in the Salish Sea points out, Canadian and U.S. oil-spill experts recognize that predicted increases in vessel traffic in the Salish Sea increase the probability of an oil spill and intensify vessel disturbance in an ecosystem already confronting myriad pressures. The urgency of this issue has been amplified, given the rumours swirling in the media that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has “told his senior lieutenants to draw up plans to make the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion a reality.”

In addition to the proposed expansion for the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase tanker traffic by 574 per cent above 2010 levels to 408 oil-laden trips through the Fraser estuary and the Salish Sea annually, many other shipping increases are also on the table.

Additionally, Salish Sea waters are predicted to see an increase in container-ship traffic of 300 per cent over the next 15 years. The number of bulk-cargo vessels over this time will grow by 25 per cent and cruise-ship traffic is expected to increase by at least 20 per cent. The proposed Roberts Bank Terminal II provides an additional 2.4 million container units.

In Washington state, coal exports are the principal driver for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. This project will have a maximum capacity of 54 million tonnes of coal per year, requiring 487 vessels. It received 124,000 public comments on the scope of the environmental assessment, and a changing U.S. energy supply is also driving American coal exports through Canada.

Plans to increase coal exports in the Salish Sea were approved by Port Metro Vancouver in August 2014. Fraser Surrey Docks has been approved to ship four million tones of U.S. coal, requiring 640 barges a year. The existing Westshore facility is already Canada’s largest coal exporter and Neptune Terminals, on Vancouver’s North Shore, has also submitted plans to increase exports by six million metric tonnes and one vessel each week.

Recent risk assessments of vessel traffic specifically indicate the potential impact of three key proposals: the Pacific Gateway Terminal, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and the Deltaport expansion.

Draft results indicate that, relative to a 2010 base year, these projects increase the potential frequency of vessel traffic collision and grounding by 21 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. Potential loss of oil cargo due to collision is increased by 97 per cent and potential loss of oil cargo because of grounding by 73 per cent.

From the puncturing of the Nestucca oil barge off Grays Harbor to the Westwood Annette oil spill in Howe Sound and last year’s Marathassa oil spill in English Bay, accidents involving major marine vessels occur in and affect the Salish Sea. There have also been several near-misses.

Beyond the obvious catastrophic potential of oil spills, shipping increases will escalate the incidence of ship strikes for marine mammals, as well as acoustic disturbance. Evidence submitted by Raincoast to the National Energy Board indicated that, given existing conditions, the population of endangered Southern resident killer whales cannot withstand the additional pressures that would result from proposed increases in Salish Sea shipping traffic, recover from their endangered status, and survive in perpetuity.

There appears to be no requirement for cumulative-effects assessment of shipping and energy developments in the Salish Sea at either the project review or regional management level. No one is examining these proposals from the perspective of their cumulative impacts, and how they affect the economies, cultures and values of the Salish Sea.

The need for such assessments, involving Coast Salish governments and those at the state, provincial and federal levels, is echoed in recent findings from the SeaDoc Society, which highlighted the potential cumulative impacts on 50 species with cultural significance to Coast Salish peoples, including wild salmon, herring, crab, prawns and numerous other species.

With intense increases in shipping traffic proposed for an already crowded Salish Sea, and public confidence in review bodies and their processes severely lacking, a robust cumulative impact assessment of shipping impacts is as appropriate as it is long overdue.

 Chris Genovali is executive director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Ross Dixon is Raincoast’s policy and program manager.