The toxic fumes that spewed from the container ship Zim Kingston put a fiery exclamation point on a long-standing argument of Washington environmental groups — that state, tribal and local governments should have more say in major Canadian development projects that can adversely impact our environment and livelihoods.

Most recently, the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project appears destined for approval despite the established fact that container ship traffic to and from it will further threaten the endangered southern resident orcas. Proposed to be built in subtidal waters of the Fraser River Delta adjacent to the Westshore coal terminal just north of the Canadian border, the new terminal would eliminate 442 acres of Chinook salmon habitat, crucial to orca sustenance. Juvenile salmon shelter and feed in eelgrass beds there, while migratory sandpipers frequent nearby mud flats.

And back in 2019, Canada approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project despite widespread recognition that a major spill of tar-sands crude oil would prove disastrous. Both projects significantly increase the risks of accidents and oil spills, as well as worsen already high levels of underwater noise in these orcas’ critical habitat.

The gigantic “Mega-Max” container ships that would call on the planned terminal are over four times as large as the Zim Kingston and can carry five times as many containers. They are comparable to the mammoth vessel Ever Given that ran aground in the Suez Canal in March.

Once built, the terminal would boost the Port of Vancouver’s capacity for these huge container ships and promote additional vessel traffic — by up to 520 transits per year — through Salish Sea waters. Add in the nearly 700 more oil-tanker annual transits expected from Trans Mountain crude shipments, and over three more large, noisy oceangoing vessels per day would traverse these waters.

Mega Max container ships can carry some 4 million gallons of propulsion fuels, which could lead to a widespread oil spill after a collision or grounding. Such an incident anywhere in the Salish Sea would be devastating, but if it occurred in the narrow waterways of Haro Strait between San Juan and Vancouver Islands — where salmon pass and orcas often feed on them — it would be an unmitigated disaster. Vessels must execute a sharp right-angled turn at the strait’s northern end, where the strong winds common in winter could strike a large ship broadside and blow it off course.

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As the Ever Given and Zim Kingston have amply demonstrated, serious vessel accidents happen. Who knew that the latter carried a hazardous cargo that could catch fire? Fortunately, two tugs with firefighting equipment just happened to be docked nearby and were able to contain the blaze, probably averting a disaster.

And what about the more than 100 containers that fell overboard earlier, most of which must have settled to the sea floor? Two of them reportedly carried many tons of the explosive compound potassium amyl xanthate that caused the fire, which dissolves in water and is “toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects,” according to the chemical literature. Four containers have already drifted ashore at remote, pristine Cape Scott near the northern end of Vancouver Island, littering the shore with debris.

Did Canada’s environmental review of the terminal project anticipate such possibilities?

It certainly did not adequately address adverse impacts on Washington’s environmental, economic and cultural resources. The review panel did, however, recognize that the terminal would inevitably have “significant adverse and cumulative effects” on both Chinook salmon and southern resident orcas. And increased underwater noise due to the many more vessel transits is unavoidable.

Washington state has made major commitments to the protection and recovery of these orcas, their critical Salish Sea habitat, and their food supply, which hinges on thriving Chinook salmon. The proposed terminal would therefore threaten the encouraging progress made so far on recommendations of the governor’s orca task force.

Given these commitments and investments, it seems essential that Washington state officials be involved in the terminal’s decision-making process. Gov. Jay Inslee or his representatives should be a party to the final decision. They could, for example, require that container ships using the terminal be certified low-noise vessels — or slow down when orcas are nearby — and work with Canadian officials to establish an emergency tug stationed near Haro Strait.

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Proponents of these transport projects have also ignored their profound cultural impacts on tribes north and south of the border — especially those that hold treaty rights to fish Salish Sea waters. At the 2019 terminal hearings, several tribal leaders voiced opposition to the project due to the unavoidable threats it poses to Indigenous lifeways, calling for a moratorium on any additional Salish Sea stressors.

Whatever happens, a comprehensive, cross-border, cumulative-impact study of marine vessel traffic and related development projects is obviously long overdue, as is an agreed-upon baseline for the sustainable cultural and ecological vitality of this fecund but fragile sea. 

Lovel Pratt, marine protection and policy director of the Friends of the San Juans, contributed to this Op-Ed.