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Port giant now too big for its boots: Biologist

Coal export expansion, fuel delivery plan, tunnel replacement leads to the question: Who's making the calls?

Five years ago, a "monolithic, concretefaced structure with a soul of growth and development" rose from the ground.

Speaking with Otto Langer, there's little room for doubt as to his mind on the creation of Port Metro Vancouver, borne of the federal government-approved merger in 2008 of the Port of Vancouver, the Fraser River Port Authority and the North Fraser Port Authority.

It was a ménage-a-trois that Langer - a respected environmentalist and retired Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) senior biologist of 32 years - insists was another "nail in the coffin" in terms of protecting the Fraser River estuary.

Port Metro Vancouver (PMV), put simply, acts as judge, jury and executioner, according to Langer, when it comes to expansion proposals on the river and the federal policing of environmental concerns.

"The accessibility and accountability to the public was lost when it became one port authority," said Langer.

"The big landowner now looks after environmental assessments. It's the classic wolf looking after the sheep. That alone makes them unaccountable.

"Where's the unbiased review of anything that comes in front of the port?" Prior to the 2008 merger, brought to bear out of apparent inefficiencies in running three separate federal authorities, Langer - working for the DFO at the time as head of habitat protection for the Fraser River, northern B.C. and the Yukon - regularly butted heads in the '70s and '80s with the aforementioned ports.

But despite often crossing swords from opposite sides of the environmental fence, Langer said they were easier to work and reason with due to the nature of their size.

"They were smaller, they had local appointees, you could walk right into their offices and meet with their CEOs easily and at the drop of a hat," said Langer.

"I can't see that happening now, that's for sure. Back then, those organizations were also more accountable because they essentially had smaller interests."

Richmond's mayor, Malcolm Brodie, remembers feeling closer to the decisionmaking table when dealing with the two smaller port authorities that affected his city.

"We had an excellent working relationship," said Brodie. "Everything was smaller." Brodie recalls the three cities situated in the North Fraser authority's region having one representative between them on the board and the six or seven cities in the Fraser River authority's region having one representative between them on that board.

Currently, under the PMV 11-director model, only one person represents all of the cities in the Lower Mainland affected by PMV's operations.

Accountability PMV, under the federal eye of Transport Canada, now has too much power over what happens on the Fraser River, said Langer.

A concern, he stressed, simmered to the surface earlier this year with the cost-cutting loss of FREMP, an intergovernmental program that helped protect the environment of the Fraser River and Burrard Inlet. FREMP's responsibilities were handed over to PMV to oversee.

And the fact the public has no part to play in the appointment of PMV's board of directors, predominantly hand-picked by industry user groups, sucks even more life, said Langer, out of the credibility of the port's role to conduct unbiased environmental reviews.

"There are no checks and balances in there," he said. "If there was a properly run, independent environmental assessment procedure, then I think we would all be a little more tolerant and accepting of the system.

"Port Metro can decide, environmentally, on proposals they stand to gain financially from; it's a total conflict of interest."

Brodie - who also sits on Metro Vancouver's transportation committee, which deals directly with PMV on a number of regional issues - recognizes the positive role the port authority plays, especially in his community.

Citing PMV as a "significant economic generator, responsible for many operations on the Fraser River," the mayor also highlighted dredging initiatives, the Highway 91 overpass project and the support the authority lends to many community and city-run events.

But as grateful as the City of Richmond is to the port, there's no getting away, admits Brodie, from the "challenge" his administration faces in getting its voice heard through the thick panel of the PMV boardroom door.

"Port issues tend to be very large and their decisions can often impact the city positively or negatively without us having any say.

"And shortly after the amalgamation in 2008, there was the port's purchase of the Gilmore Farms land. If ever a red flag was raised to show Port Metro had an agenda not

in sync with the city, that was it."

PMV determined right there and then, said Brodie, that it can pick up farmland, locked in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), for port operations and then designate it as industrial without any real public process.

Coun. Harold Steves - Metro Vancouver's vice chair of the regional planning and agriculture committee - has engaged in several verbal battles with PMV over the decades, especially on issues such as the port's farmland acquisition and its perceived attack on the need for an ALR.

"They answer to themselves, plain and simple, with the support of the federal government," said Steves.

"But they keep on telling us that all they do is 'just decide who can ship the stuff, we have no say in what is shipped.' "The big question everyone always has for them is who gives the 'yes' or 'no' on proposals?

"When we go to the transport ministry for answers, they say it's not their place to answer and tell us to go to PMV. But when we go to PMV, they refer us to the ministry, it's ridiculous."

Jet fuel plan, tunnel Now almost two and a half years old, the so-called provincial/federal "harmonized" environmental review into an airline consortium's aviation fuel delivery proposal, has shed the spotlight on the assertion that the port simply shouldn't be acting as an environmental watchdog for the Fraser River, according to PMV detractors.

The consortium, VAFFC, wants to barge aviation fuel up the south arm of the Fraser, off-load it to a tank farm in southeast Richmond and then pipe it mostly along Highway 99 to YVR.

Before the plan can proceed, VAFFC requires a permit from the provincial government's environmental assessment office (BCEAO) and from PMV, which, in this instance, is the federal entity.

The B.C. government said this week that its review decision will finally be made public on or before Christmas Eve - a calendar decision which adds even more fuel to the fire, no pun intended, of protest group VAPOR's skepticism of the entire review process.

"There's no agreement written down on what this (harmonized) review should look like or how it operates," questioned Langer, who acts as VAPOR's environment expert.

"Will PMV accept what the BCEAO says? I don't think they really are true partners in all of this.

"How can they be when there's nothing written down? It's the old tail and the dog story. PMV is both and they seem to have full authority over the river."

Langer said that, because the PMV board has no public input and the review has had little or no public input, few people hold out any hope for the decision when it finally comes out.

Brodie said he and his council has, almost from the outset, red-flagged the "conflict of interest PMV Metro has in this proposal."

"Each time, they've chosen to minimalize that conflict. The port stands to gain as a landlord, but it doesn't seem to understand why this is a problem."

And when it comes to PMV's role in bringing the Massey Tunnel replacement project to the top of the B.C. government's transportation agenda, Brodie questions how influential the port authority has been.

"What we do know is that the port wants the tunnel gone," he said. "The concern from that is the potential industrialization of the whole area. The Panamax tankers that would use the river, if the tunnel was gone, are gigantic."

The only way to restore public confidence in the environmental review process of projects affecting the Fraser River is for PMV to get up from the table and leave the room, according to Langer and Brodie.

"If the likes of the port has an interest in a project going ahead, it has to step away from it," said Langer.

"We need better federal oversight, better public oversight and more public input by way of local representation on the PMV board, perhaps in the shape of someone from a marine conservation background. We need more transparency."

Langer understands PMV has a mandate to grow the economy and its operations. "That's fine, but when it comes to the likes of environmental reviews, it simply has to be carried out independently to make it credible.

"It cannot be a self-centred club, pushing the port's business and nothing else."

Brodie said there's no guarantee he would ultimately agree with a decision handed down by an independent environmental review body, "but at least the port wouldn't have been part of the game."

Looking ahead, Langer sees even more worrying times for the Fraser estuary, professing that the "stars have well and truly been lining up for years for these kinds of developments."

"It really is a disillusioning time for people such as myself.

"For many of us who, for the past 30 years or so, have been trying to get proper reviews, it's a sad time. But this is not all about the current Harper government; it started way back (with cuts from previous provincial and federal governments).