Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘Deltaport

Roberts Bank Coal Port

BNSF Coal Train at Roberts Bank yesterday

BNSF Coal Train at Roberts Bank yesterday - my photo

Roberts Bank Coal Port,  just outside of Vancouver BC, is North America’s single largest exporter of global warming pollution. It has rapidly carved out a role in the booming export of US thermal coal to Asia.  If there was a carbon-offshoring Olympics today, it would win the gold medal.  Oddly enough, the general public hardly knows it’s there.  We think that needs to change.

We’re negotiating a deal to post two billboards at the ferry terminal between Vancouver and Victoria in BC.  For one month, people waiting for the ferry would see these two images in rotation, with Roberts Bank just to the north.  We hope this will get some people turning their heads and thinking about our future and the role that BC plays in fueling the climate crisis.

Interested in helping make it happen? Visit

Kevin Washbrook
Voters Taking Action on Climate Change

coal bb image 5

coal bb image 3

Written by Stephen Rees

September 30, 2011 at 8:58 am

On the road to Richmond

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Delta Optimist

Farms not freeways poster on SFPR

Farms not freeways poster on SFPR

Harold Steves, a longtime Richmond councillor and former NDP MLA, was in Delta this week to sound the alarm bells over the loss of farmland to various development projects. He says Delta could end up looking like Richmond in 20 years.

Harold is, of course, the last farmer in West Richmond – and a local councillor. He was also one of the founders of the Agricultural Land Reserve, created in the wake of the wave of development that was allowed to sweep away all the farms in that area. The consensus in the region was that Richmond was not a suitable place for development, being low lying, and thus susceptible to flooding, but also very high quality and productive farm land. But developers and land owners did not agree, and there was at that time no effective measure to prevent a council determined to allow a lot of very profitable land use change to take place.

The provincial government loves to boast of how green it is – and welcomes every photo op with a hybrid bus, or a run of the river power developer. But its actions are wholly the opposite. While the ALR is still on the books, the Commission which was set up to ensure the policies were effective has been gutted. The deal with the Tsawassen First Nation, and the Gateway program to build the South Fraser Perimeter Road both require large amounts of the best farmland in Delta – and so they are being loaded with sand right now. The railway sidings at Deltaport are also being expanded. The port, of course is actually reporting declining traffic but no matter. Any more than anyone is paying attention to the failure of the US to pull itself out of recession  – or the huge number of container ships idled and laid up around the world.

The conversion of agricultural land to development is one of the easiest ways to make money quickly. Sale of the top soil – for which there seems to be plenty of demand – provides a quick positive cash flow. And the change in land use designation – a mere stroke of the pen – has a dramatic effect on land value. There is quite a lot of land around that needs to be redeveloped – most of the Fraser River frontage on the North Arm in Vancouver, for instance. Lots of former sites previously used as gas stations. Such “brownfield” developments are problematic and quite expensive. So despite the strategy of building a compact urban region – which is by far the most economical from nearly every other perspective – gets trampled by the greed of the developers. “Me first and the gimme gimmes”. All of whom support the BC Liberal Party generously and are paid back handsomely. We pay for the roads and other utilities that make the developments work, and we also pay in our Medical Services Premiums as heart disease, obesity and diabetes continue to take their toll on a sedentary, single occupant vehicle population. As well as the casualties from vehicle collisions on the roads, of course.

There are lots of reasons to oppose the development of Delta – and many local residents are vocal in their opposition. Not that the BC Liberals are listening, which is why they lost the seat in Delta South, admittedly by a very tight margin. But the argument cannot be won by logic or reason when money shouts so loudly, and politicians say one thing and do the opposite. But once the crunch hits – and food costs in BC start to spiral – it will be too late. Because this land will not be brought back into food  production – any more than West Richmond will be. It is the one way entropy of development akin to the burning of the rain forest. The economy is the subsidiary of the environment, not the other way round. And our primary needs are clean air, clean water and food. They all come from natural resources – and the worse job that we do looking after them, the more it costs to clean up the consequences. And those costs are not borne by developers. They are “externalities” which we all pay. And which this government is determined will be ignored for now. So we pay later.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2010 at 10:52 am

Town Hall on SFPR at the North Delta Firehall

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UPDATED October 28 with link to Eric’s speech

I was privileged to be invited to be an “expert” at a meeting last night. My assigned subject was the lack of economic rationale for the Gateway in general and the SFPR in particular. But by the time my turn came to speak both Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee and Don Hunt of the Sunbury Residents Association had pretty much covered that ground. The Panama Canal, the North West Passage and Prince Rupert had all been mentioned.

I did start with the decline in trade from China, which has already created spare capacity at other Pacific Coast ports. But the point I think I missed is the one about railways. The SFPR is anchored on the notion that ii is somehow necessary to truck containers from Deltaport to Port Kells. But actually the CP and CNR both run double stack container trains directly from Deltaport to their shared mainlines across the Rockies. The containers that leave the port on trucks are for local distribution and mostly the goods they carry get unloaded at various warehouses and the sorted and loaded back into other containers and trailers for delivery to retail stores. I have noticed increasing numbers of CN trucks on the roads around the region, and that is because CN is increasingly a vertically integrated logistics company. I suspect that it may help the railways reduce the number of trains on the Deltaport line – which is mostly single track and runs though a lot of level crossings in Langley. The coal traffic through Deltaport is no longer solely a Canadian affair as both BNSF and UP have been running coal trains to the Roberts Bank terminal.

Guy Gentner, the organiser of the meeting, is an advocate of short sea shipping. He points out, quite correctly, the none of the alternatives like this were properly examined yet the EA certificate was issued anyway. He had a copy of a report to the Port of Vancouver which examined this subject a few years ago and found that it would be cheaper than trucks. Which is quite credible, given the number of containers that could be moved on a barge. But it still bothers me that double handling containers on and off a barge just to put them back on a train – for example at Surrey Fraser Docks – must still cost more than putting them directly onto trains at Deltaport. A few years ago there was considerable congestion in the railyard there, but that is certainly not the case now.

CN Double Stack container train at Roberts Bank October 5, 2008

CN Double Stack container train at Roberts Bank October 5, 2008

Charlie Wyse the NDP MLA for Cariboo South was in the audience and he talked about the availability of land in his constituency that lies between the CP and CN main lines and would be a much better place to store containers than farmland in Delta. It is also happens to be well located for containers from Prince Rupert as well. Though again I am not sure that containers need to be stored quite so much, as the declining dollar means exports to China and other Asian destinations are more competitive. Although typically Canadian exports to these destinations are overwhelmingly bulk commodities that are uneconomic to containerise, US ports are reporting increasing flows of loaded export containers.

Eliza Olson was, as usual, highly persuasive about the importance of Burns Bog – and the issue of the the Covenant which protects the bog and the ability of Delta Corporation to use this as a legal block to port development is likely to continue. Unfortunately the finely nuanced details of this procedure is not the sort of thing that gets much discussion at this sort of meeting, but the number of Delta Councillors present, and the imminence of local elections, suggests to me that it will continue be a very significant issue there.

Eric Doherty was quiet and measured – but dealt with the subject of P3s with considerable humour. The complexity of these deals, the shakiness of many of the institutions that promote them and the continuing credit squeeze all point to the conclusion that the Gateway is anything but a done deal. Of course while this meeting was assembling Gordon Campbell was making his announcement which includes accelerating unnamed infrastructure projects. While a number of private sector developments under construction have been halted (the developers say “temporarily”) I do not have any sense that this is yet freeing up a lot of capacity. I am still struck by the amount of imported labour and expertise that is necessary for projects that include major civil engineering works, and I am skeptical that there is much of a local multiplier if most of the money spent on bridges and tunnels actually gets sent abroad. I tend to agree with Carole James that this announcement was slapped together hastily and it shows.

The star of the evening was Corky Evans, who is not running in the next provincial election, and was therefore even more unconstrained than usual. He was at the same time funny and rabble rousing. He picked up the point about the SFPR being more about land development than transportation. There are, he said, two easy ways for capitalists to make money. “1. Add sugar 2. Change zoning” The good thing about the second one is that you do not have to even buy sugar. “Paving over what we need [to grow food] to eat is whacko”. He farms on the side of a hill and on thick sticky clay. Farmers in Delta have flat land and the best soil in Canada. But once this is paved over for container storage and big box stores it will be lost forever. He praised Guy Gentner for standing up against the Tsawassen land deal – and defying party discipline to do so. He also pointed out that the only other way to make a ninefold return quickly on invested capital is dealing heroin. And there is a strong similarity in the morals of drug dealers and property speculators.

Guy Gentner expanded on this theme, and detailed the activities of a “bunch of lawyers” who set up a company called (appropriately enough) Quick Assets. They have been active along the Sea to Sky and the SFPR purchasing land along the corridor before the final route determination. One 20 acre parcel they bought for $1.7m (an otherwise worthless piece of land due to soil contamination) which was later sold for $3.7m. He also noted that the project has not yet started expropriation but is willing to buy properties along the route that are offered. But the prices the project will pay are well below comparable properties in other parts of the region. That is because the route of the SFPR has been generally indicated for over 20 years and that has had a depressing effect on prices even before the present credit crunch. For people without mortgages accepting these offers now seems preferable to waiting longer in a declining market, but a group of owners whose homes are threatened are gathering together to try and present a united front.

The arrogance of the BC Liberals appears to be cracking. The Premier has now recalled the legislature – only a few weeks after cancelling the fall session becuase there was “nothing to talk about” and MLAs were better occupied in their constituencies. I do think this is going to be an interesting session.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2008 at 7:36 am

Sandpipers’ feeding habits could spell trouble for port expansion

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Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper photo by Mike Baird


We are located on the Pacific flyway. The coast is the path of migration for large numbers of shore birds. The littoral is the place where the birds feed.

An international team has discovered why half the world’s western sandpipers touch down on a specific tidal flat just south of Vancouver every spring. The secret is in the mud, more specifically in the snot-like “biofilm” coating the mud.

The tiny shorebirds, weighing about 30 grams each, suck a remarkable 20 tonnes of the sticky slime off the mud every day as huge flocks swoop down to refuel during the spring migration, the scientists estimate.

And apparently they did not know that. This is a discovery that should stop development at Roberts Bank. There is just one problem that I see – it is already underway

port expansion Roberts Bank BC 2008_0412

This is a picture I took at Roberts Bank on Saturday. One to two million sandpipers arrive here in April and May and snort up the biofilm that is on top of the mud bank. Here.

Ports are a federal jurisdiction. I trust we will see a stop work order issued immediately. Anything less would be a crime, in my opinion.

Actually, this would be good news for all of us – not just the sandpipers. It would restore my faith in the Canadian Environmental Assessment process which so far does not seem to have served us well

Written by Stephen Rees

April 14, 2008 at 5:32 am