On 13th December 2013 the British Columbia Government, in cooperation with Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) issued approval to the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation (VAFFC) for construction of a marine jet fuel terminal and an adjacent 80 million litre capacity fuel tank farm on the banks of the Fraser River. The project would allow Panamax tankers carrying highly toxic and flammable jet fuel to enter the Fraser River. A report by Otto E. Langer, a fisheries biologist and aquatic ecologist, published in October 2014, noted that similar project of this type, on a much smaller scale, had been proposed by VAFFC in 1998 only to be rejected due to the threats it would pose to the estuary and its fish and wildlife resources. The new jet fuel facility proposal poses far greater environmental threats; Langer estimated that a 21 kilometre stretch of the river would be at risk from jet fuel spills. Occurrence of fuel spills would ‘jeopardize many social and environmental values in this very important Canadian river and its globally significant estuary’. The potentially affected area of the river is a habitat for hundreds of thousands of birds and ‘of extreme importance to the world’s largest salmon runs in a river system’. Other species that could be affected by the jet fuel terminal include seals that frequent the project area and California sea lions swimming up the river. Fuel spills would also impact upon commercial and First Nations fishing that takes place in the section of the river directly in front of the jet fuel terminal site.
Formed in April 2011, VAPOR – A Society for Vancouver Airport Fuel Project Opposition for Richmond opposes water borne transport of jet fuel on the Fraser River Estuary and to promote a safer and more secure fuel delivery system to Vancouver Airport via land pipelines. The City of Richmond and the City of Burnaby have sent letters of support to VAPOR. West Coast Environmental Law Organisations supporting VAPOR include: Musqueam Indian Band, The Council of Canadians, Delta Naturalists’ Society, NATURE VANCOUVER, David Suzuki Foundation, Fraser Riverkeeper and West Coast Environmental Law which provided a grant to VAPOR for a legal opinion on the approach taken for the environmental assessment of the project and for a judicial review of the approval of VAFF’s shipping proposal via their Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund.
Musqueam Indian Band voiced important concerns over the VAFFC project. A 2011 report stated they had not been given adequate time to review the complex application; the project proponents had been working on technical reports for years yet they were given only a few months to review and comment upon the reports. They described the lack of opportunity to meet directly with the project proponents as ‘disrespectful of our role as the First Peoples of the lands and waters in which they wish to locate a Project that will have such an adverse impact on our Aboriginal rights and title’. The report explained that ‘the Project will have special impact on us because we have made use of the Fraser River for many of our needs including fishing, transport and trade’. A local artist, Eveline Kay, made a music video inspired by VAPOR’s struggle against the jet fuel terminal, tank farm and pipeline, in support of the tireless struggle against the plans, which were approved in spite of the known risk of jet fuel spills polluting the river.
VAPOR and Otto Langer applied for a judicial review of the December 2013 decision of the Minister of Natural Gas and the Minister of Environment, granting an Environmental Assessment Certificate to VAFFC, arguing that the public were not properly consulted during the Environmental Assessment process. On 24th June 2015 VAPOR lost this court case. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Province of British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office and VAFFC. VAPOR and Otto Langer expressed disappointment with the court’s decision and repeated their request that airlines using Vancouver Airport objectively re-examine other options for transporting jet fuel. VAPOR took further action drawing attention to inadequate consultation in the permit review process for VAFFC, writing a letter of objection regarding the short period for an Open House held on 29th August 2015 and comment closure date on 19th September. Time for word to spread and for the public to read and understand the impact of the newly released documents was severely limited. As well as the short time period it was during the summer holiday season and many interested parties may not have been able to attend due to being away on vacation. VAPOR argued that the comment period after the open house should be of at least six weeks duration.
VAPOR was back in court on 22nd January 2016, successfully fending off a VAFFC application for VAPOR to pay their court costs. VAPOR’s press release stated that this was not, as it might appear, merely a minor victory in comparison with losing the previous case about adequacy of public consultation. The ruling set an encouraging precedent for organizations that refuse to be bullied by corporate interests, showing that ‘concerned citizens, should not fear taking legal action against environmental wrongs knowing they would automatically have to pay court costs of those they challenge should they lose’. Counsel for VAFFC trivialized VAPOR members’ detailed technical presentations and portrayed the organization’s concerns as narrow “not in my back yard interest”, saying that VAPOR was not interested in broader environmental issues and had not acted in the public interest. Justice Dillon refuted this claim, making it clear that she considered the case a matter of great public interest. Referring to her June 2015 judgement, she said that the public had every right to challenge the adequacy of the process, which is about instilling respect for and trust in the decisions that are made.
In March 2016 the jet fuel facility received a permit from PMV. VAPOR issued a press release stating ‘extreme disappointment’, stating that the British Columbia government ‘refused to properly address the hazards of super tankers of jet fuel, a terminal and 90 million litre tank farm on the south shore of Richmond close to the complex of several rinks, movie theatres, restaurants and condominiums’. VAPOR reiterated concerns that the public safety of a section of the river could be endangered, experience having shown that such a fuel facility ‘can cause spills, fires and under certain circumstances catastrophic explosions affecting a large area’.
By May 2018 the initial phase of the jet fuel pipeline to Vancouver Airport and construction of the project’s storage facility were underway. It was also anticipated that the development permit to allow the terminal facility to be built on city land would be considered by the council in the near future. Ted Townsend, a spokesperson for the City of Richmond, said the pipeline was unnecessary: “We think that with the existing pipeline, and potentially some upgrades it could more than meet their current and future needs for capacity”.