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Gantry cranes are used to unload cargo containers from the Yang Ming Upsurgence container ship docked at Global Container Terminals Deltaport, in Delta, B.C., on July 15, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The Port of Vancouver is urging the federal cabinet to approve plans for a $3.5-billion container terminal, portraying the project as important for British Columbia’s economy to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada’s largest port is touting the project, called Roberts Bank Terminal 2, as a necessary expansion of shipping-container capacity on the West Coast to meet an anticipated increase in transpacific traffic, including imports of consumer goods from Asia and exports of Canadian commodities.

But first, the project requires federal approval for the construction of an artificial island near an existing coal-export terminal and shipping-container site that are located near Delta, B.C., about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver.

“We’re well positioned to be a big part of the economic recovery,” Robin Silvester, the port’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “For an economy emerging from a significant pandemic-induced recession, that would be a big economic boost. It’s a project that we hoped to move forward with anyway, but the economic value could be even more significant at a time like this.”

The federal cabinet is expected to issue its ruling on Terminal 2 by the end of November.

The project is facing opposition from environmentalists, community activists and a rival proposal from one of the port’s own tenants, GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., which runs the existing shipping-container site near Delta.

In late March, a three-member panel of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, formerly known as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, made 71 recommendations to mitigate Terminal 2′s effects on wetlands, aquatic species and other areas.

The panel said the Indigenous group most affected by Terminal 2 would be the Tsawwassen First Nation, which expressed concerns such as reduced access to harvesting crab and fishing.

“Tsawwassen has treaty lands and treaty harvest areas within the marine shipping area,” the panel said in its 627-page report. “Tsawwassen specifically noted concerns about vessel collisions, loss of fishing gear and reduced access to preferred fishing sites.”

Adrian MacNair, a spokesman for the Tsawwassen First Nation, said the Indigenous group is holding talks with the port to update their 2004 memorandum of understanding on issues related to Roberts Bank. “Those negotiations would include concerns surrounding the new terminal,” Mr. MacNair said in a statement.

Roger Emsley, executive director of Against Port Expansion Community Group, wants the federal cabinet to reject plans for the three-berth container terminal.

In a recent letter to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Mr. Emsley said if Ottawa were to approve Terminal 2, it would risk severely damaging the area’s ecosystem. “In looking at the mitigation measures proposed by the panel, it is clear that much of the mitigation proposed are hit-or-miss measures,” Mr. Emsley said in his letter.

The rival proposal is from GCT, which argues that the port’s plans don’t make economic sense. GCT wants to expand its existing Deltaport container terminal and opposes its landlord’s proposal to build a man-made island that would be located near GCT’s site and Westshore Terminals Investment Corp.'s coal-export facility.

“Global trade and container traffic growth are very difficult to predict and forecast at the best of times, but most especially when major dislocations occur. External factors, such as COVID-19 or deglobalization, can have catastrophic impacts," GCT CEO Doron Grosman said in a statement. “While we don’t know how significant the impact of the pandemic will be, the current trade circumstances underscore how vital it is that projects are scalable and meet demand as required, not as desired by a port authority.”

Mr. Grosman said the Terminal 2 plans are too costly, and he added that the Port of Prince Rupert in northern B.C. is already expanding container capacity.

In the Port of Vancouver, GCT runs the Deltaport and Vanterm container terminals, while DP World PLC operates the Centerm container terminal and the multipurpose Fraser Surrey Docks. The port’s goal is to open Terminal 2 in 2029, with connections to railways and road networks.

In this year’s first quarter, the port’s overall cargo volumes slipped 0.5 per cent compared with the same period in 2019. Container traffic fell 12.8 per cent, although that was partly offset by increases in shipments of coal and grain.

Mr. Silvester said he is optimistic about a rebound in trading volumes.

“Our experience would give us every confidence that ultimately Canada is a trading nation and trading volumes will return to a growth path over time,” he said. “Efficient access to Asian markets for growing trade is critical to the Canadian economy.”

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