FRIDAY FEATURE: Managing the day-to day operations of North America’s largest export port, while mitigating its impact on local communities such as Richmond, is a delicate balancing act not lost on Port Metro Vancouver’s CEO Robin Silvester.
One in every five dollars worth of trade in Canada moves through the port (PMV), sustaining, in the process, 60,000 jobs across the Metro Vancouver region.
It would be naive to assume the vibrations from such a footfall don’t register at ground level in the region where the port does business.
“To give you an example of how we engage with the community; last year we had two meetings a day, everyday, that involved the public,” Silvester told the News.
“We hear people and we understand. We understand their frustrations, especially with regard to traffic and noise.
“It’s really important for us to continue to engage with these people and mitigate those impacts.”
One of the single, biggest public relations problems PMV currently faces is confusion over its authority, its accountability and how it decides on proposals for new operations in its waters.
“We recognize this as a problem and we are working on making it clearer to the public,” admitted Silvester.
“If we use the coal export expansion as an example: It’s land that comes under our jurisdiction, it’s in our land use plan. For (the exporter) to be able to do this, they have to apply for a permit from us.
Addressing accusations that PMV, the federal entity on the aforementioned coal expansion proposal, was working too closely with the proponent (Fraser Surrey Docks) — apparently inappropriate email exchanges between a public relations firm representing a coal industry lobby group and the port were made public — Silvester drew comparisons to dealings at a city hall level.
“The same accusations could be leveled at city hall, where staff usually work very closely with developers,” he said.
The difference, however, is that local developments are ultimately accepted or rejected by city councilors, who are accountable to voters.
MASSEY TUNNEL AND FUEL DELIVERY PLAN
Ever since Premier Christy Clark proclaimed last month the tearing up of the jam-packed Massey Tunnel, skeptics began questioning the government’s motives and how much of a role PMV had played in pushing The Tube’s replacement with a bridge.
Some critics have even gone as far as to suggest the only reason the region is getting a multi-billion dollar transportation project is to facilitate larger vessels’ passage up the shallow Massey Tunnel section of the south arm of the Fraser River.
Not so, said Silvester, who insists the tunnel replacement has been on the cards long before PMV was formed.
“Ask someone in Delta what’s the most important issue for them,” he said.
“We have seen the potential for growth south of the river and seen major infrastructure investment, so logically, the government is looking at the next major thing to help that growth.
“The tunnel is one of those critical impediments to that growth.”
Addressing fears of giant, ocean-going vessels being given the green light to sail up a tunnel-free river, Silvester tempered the notion, saying the river simply isn’t wide enough.
“We are never going to see the world’s largest tankers coming up the river and it’s important that people understand that.
“It would be Panamax size vessels (950 feet maximum length) with bulk products and it’s not going to be a huge amount of traffic up the river.
“I see it more in terms of diverse traffic and if we have three terminals for this kind of use on the river right now, it might extend to four.
And when it comes to the review of the controversial airline consortium’s proposal to ship aviation fuel up the river and then off-load it onto land that the port would rent out, Silvester insists it doesn’t have the power to trump the province.
“This (project) needs both the B.C. permit and the federal permit to proceed. The federal one can’t override the other.”
Although PMV has shown its ability to override the province’s Agricultural Land Commission by buying up farmland for its own purposes.
SHORT TERM VISION
There is going to be even more growth in the Asian economy, aligned with growth in the Canadian economy, said Silvester. And PMV has to be ready, he said, to make the most of that opportunity.
“There has been about $9 billion investment in the infrastructure in the region and this is all based on core beliefs of the opportunities that are going to come from those two growth areas,” he said.
“I think already we are starting to see those opportunities coming through with the likes of the grain and coal expansion and it’s my expectations in the next five to ten years that the private sector will invest even more.
LONG TERM VISION
The longer PMV peers into the future, the more difficult it becomes to predict and plan.
“Essentially, we envisage two big changes: 1: Increasing and adapting capacity or reducing it; 2: An increasing focus on the environmental and social benefit.
“The one we see most likely is continuous growth. We are blessed with resources that are necessary for the rest of the world, but we do also see this healthy pressure in sustainable thinking; basically producing ongoing growth with an increasing focus on sustainability.”
The growth Silvester refers to has to be serviced, at some point down the line, by land; land suitable enough to be used for port expansion and land that, ultimately, will come at the price of farms.
“We have to make absolutely the best use of the land we already have,” he said.
“At Delta Port, for example, we have increased the capacity by 30 per cent without using any more land.
“But we also have to preserve the industrial land. Three thousand hectares of industrial land have been lost in the last 30 years and the protection of the remaining industrial land is critical.
“We are very aware of the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) and we think the same model needs to be applied to industrial land.
“Number one is making better use of the land we have and, number two, thoughtfully create land where we can and to work with everybody to make sure we don’t lose more land.”
CONTROLLING THE GROWTH, COST OF STANDING STILL
“I think control is very important, but it has to be with thoughtfulness and the appropriate community engagement,” said Silvester.
“What we have to understand here is that there is sometimes a narrow time window for growth opportunities.
“We sit in the middle of all that and we have to make sure the right questions are being asked when those opportunities arise.”
The cost of not jumping through those windows of growth opportunity would be felt, not just by PMV, but all of us, attests Silvester.
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