Local politicians are voicing concerns about the closure of the office that handles applications for development along the Fraser River.
The Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program and the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (BIEAP/FREMP) conducts reviews on proposed shoreline projects that could potentially damage surrounding ecosystems. The program has acted as a one-stop-shop for developers by coordinating information from every relevant agency instead of leaving proponents applying for a review to each separately.
The office is closing its doors on March 31 and Port Metro Vancouver (PMV) will be handling applications for development along the waterway for the time being.
In the Feb. 28 announcement of the impending closure, BIEAP/FREMP manager Annemarie De Andrade said the collection of agencies, which span three levels of government, would be looking to build a new partnership model but that it will take time to figure out a new system.
The program is the victim of "natural changes that occur in the economic landscape," De Andrade said, referring in part to the $150,000 federal budget cut that helped seal the program's fate. She also cited changes within partnering governmental agencies as contributing to the office's closure.
"Everybody agrees that it's a valuable program. Now it's like, how can we sustain a program after all these years that things change and the economic situation changed?"
Because Delta is at the centre of the Fraser River estuary Mayor Lois Jackson said the closure is concerning for the community.
"We are surrounded on three sides by water and we certainly have an obligation to ensure the waterway is clean," said Jackson.
She expressed concern about PMV's lack of independence as a decision-maker on environmental issues.
"Some people could view that as being a conflict of interest because they do have a lot of land holdings all along these areas and it's pretty hard to police yourself," said Jackson.
Darrell Desjardin, PMV's director of environmental programs and the current chair of BIEAP/FREMP, said not much will change when the port takes the helm.
"There certainly are some people that are implying that the port is taking over.
It's unfortunate because the process that the port is undertaking is no different than projects we've done prior to the FREMP office closing."
He said that because of PMV's land holdings it already is the agency that handled reviews on 90 per cent of the cases coming through FREMP's door.
In the past the port, a FREMP partner, would accept applications regarding its own land, make sure they were complete and refer them to any agencies or authorities that needed to provide input, explained Desjardin.
Now, as the lead agency, PMV will be handling all current applications but it will not be the only one doing reviews said Desjardin. It will still refer cases to the appropriate environmental agencies when needed and in some local instances, he said, will seek input from the Corporation of Delta. No new applications are being accepted by FREMP and new applicants are advised to consult the BIEAP/ FREMP website for instructions.
PMV is hoping the transition period will be short.
"In the interest of maintaining the partnership we have said we will do this for a very short period of time while the new partnership model is developed."
He estimated it should take five to six months for the agencies to re-work themselves and to figure out new funding.
De Andrade wouldn't speculate as to how long it will take for a new environmental review system to be in place.
"Each government ... is going through big change right now, so they don't know themselves," she said.
The port authority also addressed accusations that it being responsible for environmental review in the Fraser River estuary is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
"That's a very good analogy, which we take very seriously," said Desjardin.
"That's why we make sure that all of our decisions are open and transparent."
He added that if someone takes issue with a PMV decision they can apply for a judicial review.
"The port takes very seriously the fact that these projects, which have the potential to have both environmental and community impacts, need to be properly assessed," said Desjardin.
When the port itself is applying for development review it says it consults with the appropriate agencies. As a local example Desjardin said, "Work at Deltaport often requires Fisheries and Oceans to provide authorization or a letter of advice for the project to proceed."
However, MLA Vicki Huntington listed the port's control within FREMP combined with changes to environmental law as additional reasons why the program dissolved.
"The port has increasingly exercised its authority over the decisions that FREMP has been making," she said.
During Deltaport's third berth construction, Huntington said, the port would not accept FREMP's colour-coding designation of Brunswick point as a highly restricted "red zone".
With the lack of funding and the changes in environmental legislation, Huntington said she doesn't know what a new model will look like.
"I'm just hoping that everything is still going to be thoroughly reviewed and understood so that we aren't going to go backwards after all the work that has been done to ensure clean water and clean habitat," Jackson said.
According to FREMP's website the program was responsible for reviewing over 500 projects in Delta.