Océans en santé. Communautés en santé

Trans Mountain (One Saga Ends; Another Begins)

April 30, 2024

The sorry saga of the Trans Mountain Pipeline’s construction may soon be coming to a close: on March 29, 2024, the last crossing of the Fraser River was completed, making connection to the port at Westridge Terminal possible. The company says that if the Canadian Energy Regulator gives it the final approvals, the line could be in service by May 1. That means that this May could see the beginning of a whole new era of marine risk, as tanker traffic is expected to increase from about 5 ships per month to 34.

Living Oceans and Raincoast Conservation Foundation worked with counsel at Ecojustice from the inception of this project to try to prevent this from happening, or at least to mitigate the risk to the environment and to Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), whose habitat includes the tanker route. We participated in the original hearings and when marine impacts were ignored by the regulator, we sued successfully to force a reconsideration. At the end of the day, it was the federal government that stepped in, not only buying the beleaguered project for $4.5 billion, but also agreeing to meet 16 conditions designed by the regulator to minimize the risks of increased tanker traffic.

None of the 16 conditions for protecting SRKW appears to have been met.

There is a knotty legal problem involved for the government: SRKW are listed  as an endangered species, meaning they are entitled to the full protection of the Species at Risk Act. The Act requires measures to avoid or lessen the Project’s adverse impacts on the Southern Residents and their critical habitat to be in place prior to project approval. The project was approved on the strength of the government’s undertaking to meet those 16 conditions.

SRKW were already at risk from underwater noise and from ship strikes. It’s hard to see how increasing tanker traffic sevenfold could possibly “avoid or lessen” such impacts. It’s harder still to see what steps the government has taken in that direction. 

The Port of Vancouver asked for voluntary speed restrictions in portions of SRKW habitat for a time in 2023. Modelling of its actual, measured results was interpreted as achieving a 50% reduction in underwater noise during the period. There is no indication of the impact this may have had on SRKW behaviour. Did the whales’ communications, feeding and socializing to return to normal? We don’t know. 

Trans Mountain’s increased traffic will add over 1600 vessel-transits per year to SRKW habitat, between tankers and escort tugs. This represents about a 15% increase in ocean-going commercial vessel traffic through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Our counsel at Ecojustice has prepared a petition to the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development, filed in early February, seeking answers on the status of the 16 recommendations. Under the environmental petitions process, the Minister must respond within 120 days. The response date for our petition is June 19, while the planned in-service date for the pipeline is currently May 1.

Watch for an update in our next newsletter!

Photo credit: Earl Hirtz

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