Planned Roberts Bank Terminal Threatens Orcas

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Less than a mile north of the border, the Port of Vancouver is planning an enormous new container-ship terminal on the Salish Sea that Canada’s Federal Review Panel has admitted will dramatically impact threatened Chinook salmon and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, or orcas, that feed on them.

Should this project become reality, hundreds of additional massive container ships — among the largest such vessels in the world — would ply these waters annually, substantially raising the chances of accidents and oil spills, as well as adding to the risks of ship strikes and increasing underwater noise levels in these orcas’ critical habitat.

As currently planned, Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2) would be built in the sub-tidal waters of the Fraser River delta adjacent to the Westshore coal terminal, on 437 acres of critical habitat for salmon and migratory birds. Once built, it would significantly increase the Port’s capacity for larger container ships and induce more container-ship traffic through the trans-boundary waters of the Salish Sea — by up to 520 transits per year.

The massive “Mega-Max” container ships that could call on this terminal typically carry 18 to 24 thousand containers. They can also carry much larger amounts of propulsion fuels, in some cases over 4 million gallons worth, which could dramatically increase the extent of an oil spill from a container-ship collision or grounding.

Such an event anywhere in the Salish Sea would be incredibly damaging. A major oil spill resulting from an accident at Turn Point in Haro Strait (between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island), for example, could become a disaster affecting the marine ecology of the entire San Juan archipelago and Canadian Gulf Islands.

A major oil spill resulting from an accident in Haro Strait could become a disaster affecting the marine ecology of the San Juan Archipelago and Canadian Gulf Islands.

On November 7, 2007, for comparison, the container ship Cosco Busan struck the San Francisco Bay Bridge in a dense fog, releasing over 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into bay waters. Strong tidal mechanics caused the spill to spread rapidly, soon oiling over 200 miles of coastline within the bay and beyond, to Pacific Ocean shores from Pacifica north to Point Reyes. Almost 7,000 shorebirds died from exposure to the oil, which also severely impacted the spawning of herring eggs that winter and spring.

The environmental review of this project by the Canadian panel did not adequately address the terminal’s adverse impacts on Washington state’s environmental, economic and cultural resources — or on its public and private properties. Nor did it address the deeply felt concerns of First Nations and Native American tribes on both sides of the border who hold treaty rights to fish these waters.

The Canadian review panel admitted that the new terminal would inevitably have many environmental impacts, including “significant adverse impacts on Chinook salmon” as well as “significant adverse and cumulative effects on SRKW (Southern Resident Killer Whales).” Yet the specific impacts on the endangered orca population — now down to only 74 remaining members — were largely ignored.

The Canadian review panel admitted that the new terminal would inevitably have many environmental impacts.

Washington state has made significant commitments to and investments in the protection and recovery of these killer whales, their critical Salish Sea habitat, and their food web, which hinges on the availability of Chinook salmon. The terminal will threaten the progress made to date on recommendations of the Governor’s Orca Task Force and on state legislation that has ensued from its deliberations. Even ignoring the added risks of oil spills and ship strikes, there would still be a major increase in underwater noise levels from these massive container ships that will further limit the orcas’ ability to echolocate, communicate and hunt.

Over 40 organizations and nearly 100,000* individuals have asked Governor Inslee to oppose the Roberts Bank terminal project, signing a petition addressed to him. And they have asked that if the project is approved in spite of their strong objections, he should insist that robust risk-mitigation measures — such as an emergency tug strategically located along the vessels’ path — be required to protect the orcas, salmon and Washington state environment.

*updated, as of January 28, 2020.

Jeremiah “Jay” Julius and Lovel Pratt contributed extensively to the research and writing of this article. For a more detailed discussion, especially including the Lummi Nation viewpoint, see their Orcas Currents article on the subject, “Roberts Bank Container Terminal Threatens Orcas.”

About Michael Riordan

Posting Citizen Journalist • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Tim Paxton

Feb 01, 2021

Great article.  Q: Is this shipping terminal another Chinese owned creation?

Q: Has BC or WA shown any ability to increase the Orca Population, ever? 

Q: Will this project include adding a second rail/de-rail track through Whatcom/Skagit Counties for all the millions of containers heading this way?  And all the raw materials heading back to China from this proposed port?  I.e. round the clock trains along our waterfront?

Perhaps Gov Inslee should work with Canada show they can increase the Orca population before even thinking about letting the CCP / COSCO into these waters with this facility.

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Michael Riordan

Feb 23, 2021

Good questions, Tim, and I apologize for the delay in replying. Had to talk to the experts first, especially Lovel Pratt.

On your first question, there is no evidence (yet) that the Chinese are involved. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (aka Port of Vancouver) is the project proponent. But I could imagine China getting involved in the financing, as the terminal would redound to its commercial benefit.

There has thankfully been a small increase in Orca population in the last few years, from a low of 72 individuals, but it’s a big stretch to attribute it to BC or WA policies.

You raise a good point in your third question. It seems inevitable that additional train traffic would course through Whatcom and Skagit Counties from the added container ship capacity at RBT2. Just like what happened inland from Long Beach and Los Angeles container terminals. I’ve asked Lovel to contact you with what details she may know about.

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Michael Riordan

Mar 29, 2021

Update 29 March 2021:

The recently freed “stuck ship” in the Suez Canal, mega-max container ship Ever Given, is the same size as the container ships that will begin transitiing Haro Strait and Boundary Pass if the proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project gets approved and built. It is purportedly carrying something like 20,000 containers, roughly the midpoint of the 18,000 to 24,000 containers that this vessel class can carry.

Reports and analyses of what went wrong are still coming in, but the wind clearly played a crucial factor in diverting the Ever Given from its path and into the eastern shore of the channel. I have seen reports of wind speeds ranging from 30 to 70 mph and suspect that the actual speed fell in the range 30 to 50 mph. Bloomberg News reports that the ship was transiting the canal without a tug escort, despite the high winds and the fact that other, smaller container ships ahead of it did indeed have tug escorts.

These are the kinds of winds that are commonly experienced during the winter in Haro Strait, where they have to execute a right-angle turn at Turn Point on Stuart Island. There a following wind of that speed would begin to hit the vessel broadside, creating tricky navigating conditions. Add that to the fact that containers would be piled ten or more stories high, creating a serious “sail effect,” and you have a recipe for disaster. There are shallow reefs in the Turn Point area onto which the container ship could easily be driven aground and begin leaking fuel oil into the Salish Sea.

Perhaps we should require that such mega-max container ships have a tug escort, just as is now required of oil tanker in transiting the strait.

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