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Budget cut kills habitat watchdog office

Critics fear for Fraser River estuary, Burrard Inlet as Port Metro Vancouver steps in
A container ship prepares to dock at Deltaport.

Federal funding cuts have forced the closure of an office that coordinates environmental protection in the Fraser River estuary and Burrard Inlet.

Critics say it's a fresh blow to habitat protection in Metro Vancouver that could concentrate more power to approve development in the hands of port officials.

The Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) and Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (BIEAP) have stopped vetting shoreline development applications and will close their Burnaby office doors at the end of the month.

Port Metro Vancouver has stepped in to handle incoming project applications on a temporary basis until a new partnership model can be developed.

The move came after Ottawa chopped about half of the $350,000 annual budget for FREMP and BIEAP, and follows earlier cuts to Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) staff here and across B.C.

Former DFO habitat assessment manager Otto Langer said the decision continues a pattern of federal cutbacks and policy shifts that leave fewer safeguards in place for sensitive ecosystems.

"It's a callous disregard for environmental protection," Langer said. "When is all this going to stop?"

Langer said the loss of the FREMP/BIEAP coordinating role will reduce scrutiny and free Port Metro Vancouver to further industrialize sensitive areas.

"They're given more and more authority to do whatever they want in the estuary," he said. "Their legislated mandate is to develop and meet the needs of industry. It's the wolf being put in charge of the sheep."

But Langer agreed the twin programs have become less relevant over the years – they date back to when three separate harbour authorities existed that have since been merged into Port Metro.

Port Metro Vancouver officials say their intervention to handle incoming referrals will be only a temporary one and final approvals will be up to federal or provincial environmental agencies.

The port isn't taking on any new powers or responsibilities that it did not already have, said Darrell Desjardins, director of environmental programs at Port Metro Vancouver.

"This is very short term," he said. "We are just acting in the interim as the lead agency while DFO establishes their own front counter or portal to get information into their system and also the province as well."

Although there will be no standalone office, Desjardins said the multi-agency partnership will continue.

Metro Vancouver environment committee chair Heather Deal expressed "grave concern" with the closure and added Metro officials are working to be part of whatever solution emerges.

"It's really disturbing to lose this coordinating body," she said. "We know there's increasing pressure, not decreasing pressure, on our sensitive eco-resources along our shorelines."

The office has worked on behalf of the provincial environment ministry, Metro Vancouver and the federal fisheries, environment and transportation departments to jointly coordinate environmental management in the area.

Its demise comes as the port is under fire for plans to expand coal exports and crude oil tanker shipments.

Other controversial projects under consideration include a jet fuel pipeline to the airport that would bring tankers into the lower Fraser River and a huge expansion of Deltaport.