Burnaby residents are right: real climate action is not at the expense of biodiversity and the environment. We cannot take a GHG-emissions-only lens, we must consider the impacts of climate change induced flooding, resiliency, habitat, and conservation. And as a resident wrote to me, we cannot continue to externalize our costs onto the environment.
Like many Burnaby residents, I have been taken aback by the process this project has taken. At the time of the first vote, I did not have access to the environmental assessment report, feasibility study, technical details, or even a fraction of the information I have now, which I have had to dig up, receive through residents with institutional knowledge, or know what to ask for and advocate that it be accessible. I was also told that this land wasn’t nearly as valuable as I know it to be now. Through asking independent experts and combing through the information and questions that residents have sent me, I have a lot of takeaways. The clearest one is that this location for this project not in the best interests of Burnaby residents or the region.
On the Environmental Assessment (EA) report:
The EA report correctly named that the location of the proposed site is on tidal forest and tidal wetlands, but failed to identify just how valuable and rare this type of land really is. The information emphasized to us was about its past — that it was farmed and disturbed — rather than what it has become in its present day: rarely intact tidal forest and tidal wetland, which is incredibly scarce and ecologically diverse, healthy, and full of native species.
The EA report states that waterways will be infilled to allow the project to be built. When I asked why this was allowed, but creeks and streams must be protected, I was told that it related to the legislation — that the “ditches” that exist on this site are not protected by law. That is not only an example of exploiting legislation to support development, it is false and incorrect. The Riparian Areas Protection Regulation (RAPR) defines fish habitat as anywhere that fish exist, including confirming that “a ditch is a stream”. As stated in the EA report, there were 10 native species of fish, including Chinook salmon, found in the “ditches”. RAPR also does not allow for wetlands connected to fish-bearing habitat to be destroyed, which this project in this location would do.
Much of the justification for building on this land was the 3:1 ratio of enhancement and compensation. I was impressed to see this at first, partly because we don’t often see enhancements of green space that support habitat. But, I’ve since learned that habitat enhancement that comes as justification for destroying natural spaces only tends to work 1/3 of the time. And that it’s very difficult to measure the impact enhancements have on ecosystems at large — we tend to focus on one or two species.
Flooding and dikes:
This location is in floodplain. Coupled with the additional impacts of climate change making our winters wetter and rainfall more severe, it would be irresponsible to pave over tidal forest and tidal wetlands, green infrastructure that protects us from flooding and king tide events.
The proposed method of risk reduction against flooding is to build a 5.1m dike. Not only is this going to be extremely expensive and land-intensive (further increasing the size of the footprint), it’s a solution that cuts off our nose to spite our face: we’re paving over green infrastructure that naturally supports water retention and then building a wall to protect the facility from it. Doing so will also impact the rest of the areas fronting the Fraser River. We don’t know how much it will impact the other areas, because this hasn’t yet been studied in the context of this project.
Ecosystems are adaptive, meaning that they can migrate and move elsewhere if disturbed. But when human intervention includes dikes, they prevent natural adaptation that would otherwise occur, meaning that these tidal wetlands and tidal forests will have no chance of reforming elsewhere.
Discussing the AAP in very general ways compared to understanding the very real barriers to the process was a huge contrast. As we waded further and further into the AAP, it was concerning to me that this tool was being used for such an important decision.
I believe in allowing yourself to change your mind after being presented with new information. At Council, we are expected to make decisions on everything from niche sports to utilities to compost facility projects, and we often rely on the technical advice or recommendations of staff. Based on the lack of information we received in the first iteration of the vote — and after having read through the EA report and other reports that I now have access to — I don’t believe that we should be building in this location.
There are certainly very real challenges to building elsewhere, and it may mean that the project does not happen. While I can understand the public’s disbelief that it could not go elsewhere, even with an efficient footprint, advanced technology, and no requirement of dikes, we would likely need approximately ten to eleven acres of industrial land. I am supportive of using all tools at our disposal to build this project, but not at the currently proposed location.
I hope we can partner with other municipalities, take a creative and proactive approach to assembling industrial land, and in general, think outside of the box. The climate crisis requires it of us.