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Urban Planning + Architecture

To Critics, Massey Bridge Is an Environmental and Planning Disaster

And something called the ‘human kebab zone’ is involved. Last of two.

Daniel Wood 24 Feb

Daniel Wood is a widely published Vancouver journalist and author.

This report is part of The Tyee’s reader-funded B.C. 2017 election coverage. To learn more about becoming a Tyee Builder, go here.

[Editor’s note: If you missed part one of this story, on the making of the Massey bridge, go here.]

Seated in his sunny city hall office, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie slides a realistic photo-shopped aerial image of a massive highway intersection toward me and asks, “Where’s this?”

I look. “Los Angeles?”

“No, not Los Angeles,” he says, laughing. “Richmond. It’s what’ll happen to the Highway 99/Steveston Highway intersection once the new Massey replacement bridge is built. Twenty lanes wide,” he says, pointing at Highway 99 as it cuts through southernmost Richmond. “Twenty lanes wide!” And his face acquires a slack-jawed, dinner-plate-eyes expression at the horror of it.

“You know what this means for Richmond?” he asks. “You’ve got a big bridge that’s going to encourage suburban sprawl in Delta and South Surrey. That means more single-occupancy cars. Commuters head north each morning over the new 10-lane bridge and... there’s the four-lane Oak Street Bridge straight ahead. So, you’ve just shifted congestion from the south end of the Massey Tunnel to the south end of the Oak Street Bridge. People will try to avoid the traffic jams on Highway 99 by doing rat-runs through Richmond. Do you widen No. 3 Road to deal with that? And what’s this?” Brodie asks, pointing at the photo-shopped, six-lane eastbound extension of Steveston Highway. “Is this going to be a new highway that bisects Richmond’s cranberry fields and connects to a new Boundary Road Bridge over the Fraser?”

Brodie is now getting apoplectic. “New highways? New bridges? Why not a bridge from Richmond to Vancouver’s Blenheim Street? Why not replace the Oak Street Bridge? Make it 10 lanes wide. I’m sure Vancouver will be happy to turn Oak Street into a freeway... No, no!” he says, suddenly gesticulating. “Don’t say I said that! Politicians have to be careful with irony. The thing is: a new Massey replacement bridge exacerbates the problems. It’s shortsighted. It’s absurd. It goes against 40 years of regional planning focused on confining suburban sprawl, and getting people out of cars and onto transit.”

Then Brodie gets political. “In the history of Vancouver, the thing that most deserves credit for that city’s quality of life was opposition to the proposed eight-lane, elevated freeway cutting through Chinatown and Gastown and along the Coal Harbour waterfront in the late ‘60s. Protestors stopped it. The proposed Massey replacement bridge presents the same dangers to Metro Vancouver as the freeway did to Vancouver.”

A river industrialized

But the consequence for Richmond are far less than for the Fraser River.

“The bridge project is part of a huge process to industrialize the Fraser,” says Stephen Rees, a retired Vancouver regional planner. “Once the bridge is in and tunnel’s gone, the river will be ‘hard-scaped,’” he continues. “You dredge, you remove river-bottom sediments. You dyke marshland. You harden the river’s shoreline with rip-rap. These things have consequences. You tinker with the river’s estuary and shorelines — now just 15 per cent of the delta’s original wetland habitat — and what happens? You remove the places salmon hang out. The population of salmon in the Fraser was 10 times bigger a century or so ago. We’ve practically lost the sockeye already. The chinook population is way down. So is the resident killer whale population... because they eat chinook. Nature dies — the Fraser River dies — a death by a thousand cuts.”

“The B.C. government’s obsessed with megaprojects,” says Rees. “The Site C Dam. The LNG terminal on Howe Sound. The Massey replacement bridge. Why doesn’t a project this big automatically trigger an environmental review? There’s been no environmental study because no one’s admitting that dredging will follow the bridge’s construction and the tunnel’s removal. It’s an inconvenient truth. Christy Clark doesn’t want anyone to know about the environmental consequences. Call it an Edifice Complex: she wants to be seen cutting ribbons. In modern capitalism, the economic ends justify the means.” (The B.C. government has granted the project an environmental assessment certificate. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says Ottawa won’t conduct an environmental review.)

Reshaping the Fraser River

Port Metro Vancouver says there are no plans to dredge the channel once the bridge is in place.

But a briefing note from Feb. 22, 2013, prepared for an assistant deputy minister with Transport Canada, notes the depth of water over the tunnel is a problem.

“The draft of the GMT [George Massey Tunnel] is 11.5 metres, which restricts the increasingly large ocean-going ships from safely passing the GMT to attend the Fraser Surrey Docks marine terminal,” says the note from the department’s regional director. “For maximum effectiveness increasing the draft over the GMT would need to be complemented with dredging on the Fraser River.”

To understand a river, you must understand hydrology, which is the study of how moving water works.

This is something UBC professor emeritus Michael Church, an expert on river hydrology and sedimentation, knows a lot about.

“Port Metro Vancouver says it won’t dredge the Fraser,” he says. “But that seems hard to believe. The reason for removing the tunnel is to allow Panamax ships upriver. Dredging sets in motion a whole series of things. Some of them bad.”

First, he explains, a deeper river flows faster. It would cause a lot of erosion between New Westminster and the ocean. This would, in turn, cause the gradual collapse of the steep-sided, underwater shipping channels created by dredging. All these — dredging, river speed, channel erosion — would increase the deposits of silt in the Fraser estuary, and threaten the habitat of migratory shorebirds.

Siltification could also jeopardize millions of outbound juvenile salmon that use the river’s marshlands as staging areas before heading offshore, Church says. As well, dredging would allow salt water, arriving twice daily on incoming tides, to move further inland. Since hundreds of Fraser Valley farmers pump the river’s fresh water to irrigate their fields, they’d have reason to be anxious about the river’s increased salinity.

David Ryall is president of the Delta Farmers’ Institute and an outspoken defender of the province’s agricultural interests. “Once the tunnel’s gone, they’ll dredge the river,” he predicts. “Since salt water’s heavier than fresh water, it’ll sink to the bottom. It forms a sort of wedge of salinity — moving upriver on incoming tides. This salt wedge is big, big, big! Because of global warming, summers here are getting warmer and drier. If we can’t pump the river’s water for irrigation in July and August — because it’s salty — we can’t grow crops. If we don’t fight this thing, the lower Fraser’s farmland will go.”

A 2016 study prepared for the institute and the BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative examined the impact of rising sea levels and dredging on river salinity.

For the past two-and-a-half years, water systems consultant John ter Borg has been working with Fraser Voices and the farmers’ institute, looking at the effects of Port Metro Vancouver’s industrial expansion along the Fraser River.

“The big question,” he says, “is what’ll happen after they build the bridge? The B.C. government and the port say they don’t need any environmental studies because the bridge’s pillars will be on land. Not in the water. Nothing, they claim, is going to affect the river. They won’t admit they’re going to dredge it. But they have to. New Panamax cargo ships and LNG supertankers can’t reach upriver loading terminals if they didn’t.”

The Port of Metro Vancouver did not return calls seeking comment on its plans.

851px version of LNG tankers
LNG tankers, cities and danger. Photo by Ken Hodge, Creative Commons licensed.

‘Human kebob zone’

Imagine you’re sitting riverside at a Steveston cafe eight years from now. The new bridge is in. The tunnel’s gone. The Fraser River dredged. You look up as nearby heads turn, and there — beyond the moored fishing boats — a distinctive, bulbous-decked LNG supertanker slowly appears, inbound. At 320 metres, it’s longer than three football fields. Its destination is the newly expanded FortisBC Tilbury LNG Plant, where it will load 200,000 cubic metres of liquefied natural gas that is stored at minus 160 degrees Celsius in the ship’s four huge containment vessels. The tanker can access the Tilbury Island LNG terminal — located just east of new bridge — because the river’s been dredged to 15.5 metres, allowing passage of deep-keeled ships like this.

What you might not know is that if something explosively bad were to happen on the loaded tanker’s outbound passage, you and thousands of others nearby would be occupying the “Human Kebob Zone.”

The man behind the macabre phrase is West Vancouver’s Eoin Finn, a retired accountant who led an unsuccessful fight against provincial approval of the Woodfibre LNG project on Howe Sound and has spent three years researching LNG projects and their risks. The potential danger from an LNG terminal on Delta’s crowded Tilbury Island would, he tells me, be exponentially worse.

There’s the island’s industrial workers. There’s the YVR jet fuel storage facility directly across the one-kilometre wide river. There are riverside condominiums and the SilverCity Riverport Cinemas just to the west. And there’s Steveston. However unlikely an LNG explosion — a shipping accident in fog, a terrorist attack, a breach of a containment vessel — the London-based Society of International Tanker and Terminal Operators recommends that no LNG plants be located within 3.5 kilometres of population centres.

“The LNG’s stored inside a super-cold... sort of thermos,” Finn says. “Something goes wrong... it gets out. The LNG... expands in volume 600 times and turns to methane. It’s highly flammable. A flame — someone barbecuing on their Richmond balcony — and the gas explodes. Because the initial blast wave is of intensely cold gas, the 500 metres nearest the explosion’s epicentre is the ‘Human Popsicle Zone.’... The next kilometre out is the ‘Human Kabob Zone.’ Everyone would die. Within the radius of two more kilometres, the fatality rate from third-degree burns would be 50 per cent.”

He lets the immensity of what he’s saying sink in.

“Do we really want to risk that?”

If you missed part one of this series, go here.

*Article corrected March 8 to remove assertion that LNG is shipped under pressure.  [Tyee]

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