How is a metals manufacturing plant in the midst of a fish-bearing estuary even possible?
WINTRY LIGHT SPLINTERED THE HORIZON above the Saanich Peninsula. A flooding tide announced itself. First a faint slurping over mud flats. Then an almost imperceptible jostling of driftwood, a stirring of the sedges and the occasional surge and splash of something off in the early morning twilight—maybe a dog otter hunting the tide line. Maybe that rarity now, a big fish.
I shrugged deeper into my sweater, watching the lights come on at Cowichan Bay through ghostly breath, warm splashes of buttery yellow along the dark south shore. It was a cold morning reminiscent of those more than half a century ago, when I’d tempt chunky sea-run cutthroat prowling the estuary shallows.
I never dreamed I’d one day contemplate those teenaged memories through the prism of existential risk. But that’s how I felt, talking last April to gob-smacked scientists about a plan to rezone the heart of the Cowichan estuary for development of a metals manufacturing facility on an old log sort they had naively assumed would be phased out during environmental rehabilitation.
An aerial view of the former lumber loading terminal in the Cowichan estuary for which an application for rezoning to permit metals manufacturing and fabrication is working its way through local government.
What was perturbing—and remains so whatever the outcome (a final decision was expected this spring)—was the process. A rezoning application was filed in 2017 after the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) noted that current use of the site was not in compliance with a land-use bylaw in force for 30 years. In 2018, the provincial government, without doing an environmental impact assessment, advised the CVRD that on the basis of “information provided” regarding the zoning change, the use would have no detrimental environmental impact. Since then, the proposed amendment has advanced through two readings by the CVRD on a tight 5-4 vote. That triggered requirement for a public hearing. One was held March 25. It was contentious. So many concerned citizens showed up that dozens couldn’t get in, which raises questions about the “public” aspect of the hearing.
How could something so significant for the Cowichan Valley take shape on such a narrow margin of approval by elected officials without authorities concluding right from the outset that an independent, fully objective environmental impact assessment was needed, wondered the scientists with whom I talked.
The optics—for regional governments; for the Province; for the NDP’s minister of environment; even for the Green Party—seemed remarkably adverse.
“It’s easy to assume there’s no environmental risk if they don’t look,” said Carol Hartwig, a biologist who lives on the bay. “The regional district defines this so narrowly that they don’t take any responsibility for the broader issue of the estuary. We have a national and provincial treasure that’s being held hostage by a local process.”
THE COWICHAN RIVER IS BRITISH COLUMBIA'S BLUE-RIBBON trout stream. Both a national and a provincial heritage river, it remains a premium experience for elite anglers. A hundred years ago, daily action on the Cowichan appeared in the New York Times. Catches were posted outside posh London clubs. And the river was as renowned for mighty chinook and muscular coho salmon as it was for trout.
Chinook returns to the Cowichan once numbered more than 25,000. Coho came back by 70,000 or more. Old-timers who had bucktailed for coho and trolled for chinook with spoons hammered from sardine tin lids trailed behind dugout canoes told me that when late summer runs came to the Cowichan, you could hear them. A silvery rustle of jumping, rolling, swirling salmon sliding down the coast, holding in the bay in such vast numbers that one couldn’t look to any point of the compass without seeing a fish in the air.
The watersheds that feed the Cowichan and its twin, the Koksilah, cover 1,200 square kilometres. The streams tumble seaward through a series of secluded canyons, waterfalls, punchbowls, rapids and the slow, shadowy pools beloved of anglers. Flanking the streams are 20 kilometres of trails. The two rivers have become marquee destinations for hikers, white-water kayakers, campers, picnickers and the tubers who gather by the thousands on sunny summer weekends to drift calm sections.
At Cowichan Bay, the two rivers meander through the most important estuary on Vancouver Island’s southeast coast. Ducks Unlimited ranks it as one of BC’s most important. The BC Nature Trust classes it as having international significance for migratory birds. Indeed, although estuaries like Cowichan Bay comprise only 2.3 percent of BC’s coastline, they sustain 80 percent of the province’s wildlife.
For thousands of years before European settlers arrived in 1862, the estuary—the name Cowichan is an anglicized attempt at the Halkomelem word which means land warmed by the sun—served as a feast bowl for the powerful tribes occupying seven traditional village sites.
But, like many of these critical habitats, the estuary has been abused, brutalized and heedlessly exploited since the first European settlers came to pillage it without regard for the people already living there. Indigenous resource rights were alienated as early as 1889 when fish weirs used for in-river selective harvesting were banned under a federal Fisheries Act amendment that effectively transferred the fishery to settlers.
The estuary has since been diked, ditched, the rivers used as sewers, the floodplain carved up into farm fields, paved over, built upon, the bay dredged, riddled with pilings coated in toxic creosote, its foreshore chewed up by log booms, the bottom littered with oxygen-sucking bark debris.
Upstream, householders stripped riparian cover to improve their views, and loggers cleared headwaters, accelerating freshets and increasing erosion and downstream flooding.
A pulp mill sucks 150 million litres a day from the river—its license permits it to draw down 240 million litres a day. Municipalities draw millions of cubic metres from the watershed for drinking, sewerage, commercial and agricultural use and, in return, generate nearly 50 million litres of wastewater a day. Up to now, treated effluent has been discharged into the river.
Even seemingly benign tourists pose a threat. Last summer, concerns arose over the impact upon the aquatic insects and micro-organisms on which juvenile trout and salmon rely of sunscreen slathered on by sun-safe tubers.
And yet, for all the ravaging, serious work has been done to remediate. An enlightened pulp mill cooperates with community watershed planners to sustain migrating fish. Fisheries specialists worked tirelessly to restore salmon runs. Guides used buckets to rescue salmon fry stranded in summer side pools. Plans are afoot for an outfall that will no longer discharge treated wastewater into the river, but into the deeps of Satellite Channel which separates Salt Spring and Vancouver Islands.
Then, in one of those mind-boggling disconnects by which politicians recite environmental platitudes while embracing policies that appear to say the opposite, the Cowichan Valley Regional District moved ahead this spring with plans to rezone the former log-loading dump in the middle of the beleaguered estuary for redevelopment as an industrial metals manufacturing and fabricating facility.
THE NEW PLAN WAS POPULAR WITH JOBS ENTHUSIASTS. Supporters for re-zoning the site showed up at a public hearing on March 12 flaunting fluorescent safety vests. Perhaps that was just tone-deaf solidarity but it’s difficult not to feel resonance with the Yellow Vests adopted by a resurgent populist right wing that takes a strident anti-environmental stance. In any event, industry supporters promptly stereotyped the opposition as NIMBY elitists.
Critics of the plan, some of whom have lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 40 years, found themselves characterized as whiney, job-killing newcomers who built houses and then complained about the working harbour in their view.
But others, particularly life scientists, were appalled, not so much by the proposal—anybody has a right to propose anything—as by the process. They complained that regional politicians appeared to be fast-tracking development without requiring an independent environmental assessment, something critics argued was both essential and required by the Province’s own policy.
The historic relationship between industry and the environment in BC’s estuaries has not been exemplary. The Georgia Strait Alliance, an environmental organization focused on the Salish Sea, estimates half the Cowichan estuary has already been lost. The BC government itself observes that all estuaries in the province remain highly vulnerable. “Every estuary wetland vegetation type in British Columbia is red-listed (endangered) or blue-listed (special concern),” the government says in its own backgrounder. “Naturally rare and subject to multiple threats in both urban and wilderness areas, these tiny jewels in British Columbia’s coastline will require both protection and stewardship if they are to last.”
Which raises a profound question. If this is true, why would the Province not insist from the outset that any proposal to change land use to allow expanded industrial development in an internationally significant estuary undergo a comprehensive environmental risk assessment?
Among those expressing dismay at official assumptions that developing a metals fabrication site in the middle of a sensitive estuary would have no significant environmental impact were iconic names from British Columbia’s fish and wildlife management.
Ray Demarchi, who retired as BC’s chief of wildlife after a stellar 28-year career, has lived on Cowichan Bay for more than 20 years. He suggested the process represented small-minded, small-town thinking, and an inability to conceptualize in the larger environmental picture.
“Incredibly,” Demarchi said, “the Cowichan Valley Regional District accepted the assumption that changing the zoning from one that permitted lumber storage and shipping to one that included heavy metal manufacturing and assembly was not a significant change in land use.” He noted, “The Cowichan Valley is deeply divided on this issue. Past environmental battles, including the contaminated soils site at Shawnigan and the proposed dismantling of the Hood Canal bridge in Cowichan Bay, have eroded the faith of the public in government, and particularly those charged with the stewardship of the estuary.”
Those were harsh words for an NDP government which, in opposition, railed against the then-Liberal government’s apparent ambivalence to complaints about the contentious Shawnigan landfill, and for the Green Party, whose Cowichan MLA Sonia Furstenau made zoning and environmental assessment key issues while campaigning against the landfill as a regional director with the CVRD.
The process shot fault lines through municipal government itself. The community of North Cowichan, one of more than 20 in the regional district, passed motions in early March demanding a fully independent environmental assessment of the rezoning proposal before any final decision.
Also calling for an assessment were a former president of the BC Wildlife Federation, the Cowichan Valley Naturalist’s Society, a retired BC assistant deputy minister of environment who just happened to be the Province’s former specialist in Pacific estuaries, and even David Anderson, the highly-esteemed former federal fisheries and environment minister.
Anderson’s signature topped those of 16 scientists who wrote to Premier John Horgan in early April with a warning: approving the rezoning without first doing a full environmental assessment basically trashed the Province’s vigorously-promoted support for salvaging chinook abundance, and the southern resident orcas that eat them.
“If we do not seize this opportunity to protect the estuary from increasing industrialization, then a critical moment for the future of chinook and orcas will be lost,” Anderson and the others warned. “And this could mean that the $228.5 million that the Canadian Federal Government has allocated for orcas and much of the $145 million now promised by the Province for salmon recovery will be wasted. In addition, it jeopardizes the $1.1 billion being targeted for orcas by Washington State. Large programs begin with difficult local choices.”
And the citizen experts went further: The government’s own rationale for going forward without a full formal environmental assessment was “so inadequate and contradictory that it is clearly meaningless and insufficient to provide any direction or to establish whether or not there are ‘detrimental impacts.’”
They told Horgan that contrary to how their opposition was characterized, they were not opposed to industrial metal manufacturing in the Cowichan Valley. They were opposed to the proposed location. And they argued two similar operations were already operating at a fully serviced site that was more compatible and secure for long-term industrial jobs. “Estuaries are irreplaceable,” they told Horgan. “Industrial jobs can be relocated. In short, the rezoning application must be disallowed.”
Geoffrey Chislett, a respected former BC fisheries habitat biologist, in a letter to environment minister George Heyman in early February, criticized government for sloughing off a nettlesome issue by declaring it a local concern. “A large effort is being made through the Wild Salmon Advisory Council to try to turn the past trajectory of provincial concern for salmon around,” Chislett said. “A metal fabrication and assembly plant in this estuary will not help this. A huge amount of work has gone into rehabilitating the Cowichan to the point where chinook returns are back to sustainable levels. Regardless of assurances, this operation will degrade the estuarine habitat over time.”
Chislett’s fears were echoed by Bob Hooton, a former provincial fisheries biologist with an international reputation as a steelhead specialist. “We have a proposal to rezone Cowichan terminal into a marine metal manufacturing centre in the middle of an estuary that can do nothing but harm to some of the most important salmon-bearing habitat we have in the only major chinook producer still on its feet,” Hooton said. “What sense does that make?”
To make things worse, Hooton observes, Cowichan River chinook are particularly important to southern resident orcas because, unlike chinook from other rivers, they tend to stay in the Salish Sea during their ocean life rather than migrating to the west coast of Vancouver Island or into the Gulf of Alaska. “They are a potentially important contributor to orcas’ conservation and recovery.”
Elders from the powerful Cowichan Tribes once told me that the tides “set the table” in Cowichan Bay and its estuary, providing an astonishing abundance of shellfish, crabs, herring, salmon, ducks, geese, wild fruit and edible plants.
Today, the shellfish are contaminated—although there’s been a local goal to restore harvests—and the once-teeming salmon runs are such a faint memory that when heroic efforts to reverse salmon declines saw 8,000 chinook return, there was practically dancing in the streets.
But it’s the shellfish and their potential contamination with metals that topped concerns for Hartwig, the retired biologist who lives on the bay. She worried that the proposed operation would create potential for metal contaminants to wash into the estuary.
“Metal manufacturing can involve toxic materials like solvents, paints and welding slag among the obvious metals such as lead, aluminum and zinc,” Hartwig said. In fact, research now shows that copper oxide particles so small that 100,000 would fit on a human hair are damaging to aquatic insects and immature trout.
She said runoff during more frequent extreme rainfall events, a predicted consequence of climate change, and flooding caused by more frequent storm surges during a period of sea level rise, another predicted consequence of global warming, are possible vectors for metal contaminants to enter the estuary. That alone, she said, would likely end the dream of a return to shellfish harvesting in Cowichan Bay by 2020. Federal standards governing metals contamination of shellfish are stringent and would mean any restoration plan would likely be dead before completion, she said. “As long as there is metal fabrication in the bay, we will never be able to harvest shellfish.”
Her worries find support in a 2013 study by James Meador of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, which examined whether contaminants, including metals, affected juvenile chinook salmon. Meador found that the survival rate of juvenile chinook transiting contaminated estuaries was cut in half, compared with chinook moving through uncontaminated estuaries.
AS I CONTEMPLATED ALL THIS, I walked through the village of Cowichan Bay which, as resource industries declined, reinvented itself as a thriving tourist destination. Like an east-coast Tofino, it offers kayaking, bird-watching, whale-watching, angling, artisan shops, a nature centre dedicated to the estuary, art galleries, quirky diners and high-end restaurants, a wooden boat museum, waterfront accommodation overlooking slips and float houses, and easy access to nature.
I visited the Rock Cod Café, then took a croissant from True Grain Bread out on the Maritime Centre boardwalk and watched a wooden sailing dinghy extricate itself from a cramped moorage below.
Cowichan Bay is representative of how the regional district markets the Cowichan Valley to the 4.4 million tourists who spent $1.7 billion on Vancouver Island in 2014, a whopping 63 percent of whom ranked sightseeing, nature and wildlife viewing as their primary interest. Another 40 percent came to visit national and provincial parks. And 15 percent came to fish.
Statistics Canada found that marine manufacturing and service represented 2,500 jobs in the Pacific region in 2006. Tourism sustains 20,000 jobs on Vancouver Island, and has generated $135 billion in revenue since 2006.
The cranes and sheds that local jobs enthusiasts wanted to expand into a metal fabricating and manufacturing site sit precisely 650 metres off Cowichan Bay village.
How would that reconcile with the tourist pitch of “a place where people live in harmony with their natural environment” where “fish and wildlife thrive in a mosaic of natural habitat and breathtaking views are found around every corner?”
Breathtaking views, indeed. In someone’s imagination, perhaps, tourists might throng to Cowichan Bay to share coffee and a croissant at dockside while thrilling at the view of cranes and heavy industry. My bet is that the music of welders and the smell of paint wouldn’t be high on the “Let’s come back for more of that!” list.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.