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.”