Dropping the Ball

Federal government AWOL in the Fraser River estuary

Otto E. Langer

The Fraser estuary is a globally important habitat for migratory shorebirds, such as these western sandpipers | Photo (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Frank Schulenburg, cropped from original

The proposed new Richmond to Delta crossing will be a new tunnel or bridge to replace the 62-year-old Massey Tunnel. In the heart of the Fraser River estuary, it will have significant social and environmental impacts.

The non-profit Fraser Voices recently sent a brief to the BC and federal governments insisting that an eight-lane tunnel was the best option, as recommended by all Metro Vancouver mayors. A new tunnel will be less obtrusive than a bridge, more environmentally acceptable, and serve the needs of what must be a more sustainable community south of the river.

In response to our brief, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Office noted that they had no role to play in an environmental assessment: such major projects were the purview of the Province of BC. If that were true, this would be a real setback for accountable and transparent environmental protection across Canada. From 1970 to 2010, the federal government led impact studies of most projects in the Fraser estuary. Unfortunately, in 2012, the Harper Conservatives destroyed that environmental protection leadership and, despite many promises to restore it, the Trudeau government seems to be desperately poor in action.

The federal government has a long list of constitutional and statutory responsibilities to manage in the Fraser estuary, including;

  • The fishery resources, habitat, and water quality for the fishery as covered in the Fisheries Act,
  • The Migratory Birds Convention Act to manage and protect migratory bird species and their habitat in Canada,
  • The Species at Risk Act in this habitat area. Depleted and endangered populations of killer whales, Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, Nooksack dace, and white sturgeon exist here,
  • The Canada Shipping Act and national ports in Canada, including Vancouver Fraser Port,
  • The Navigable Waters Act and the Pilotage Authorities in Canada’s specified navigable waters, including the Fraser River,
  • The area includes federally-owned lands including the Delta Port area, Alaksen Wildlife Refuge, Steveston Island, the South Arm river bottom, and an 80-year lease on the North Arm of the Fraser River,
  • Impacts of a major transportation project that will serve the federal Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project, which is presently under federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) review,
  • The likelihood that BC will apply for federal infrastructure monies for this multi-billion-dollar project, thereby making it a joint financial project, and finally,
  • Under CEAA, conduct an environmental impact assessment of a significant development that affects federal lands, federal operations, federal monies, and other federal responsibilities as above.

Why has the federal government, with all of its responsibilities in protecting and managing our estuary for fish and wildlife, commerce, and our quality of life gone to sleep at the wheel? Trudeau campaigned to reverse the cuts Harper made to our many laws affecting this estuary.

Legislation was restored in 2019 but, once again, action is lacking.

If there is anyone home in the Prime Minister’s Office, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or Environment Canada, please live up to your legal and moral responsibilities.


Otto E. Langer is a fisheries biologist and chair of Fraser Voices, organized to examine a Fraser River crossing in the Richmond-Delta area and to promote the sustainability of the Fraser River estuary.

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