PKM Canada Terminals

5 things to know about water pollution at Canada’s busiest port

700 contaminants, 629 kilograms of oil and grease a day, 1 leaked video

The inlet that forms Vancouver’s northern, watery border has changed dramatically over the past 200 years.

Burrard Inlet, called səl̓ilw̓ət in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language, was once home to rich estuaries and beaches abundant with wild foods that nourished Indigenous Peoples. Today it is a hub for global trade, surrounded by dense urban and industrial development.  

Every day, the inlet is used as a dumping ground. Rainstorms wash in pollutants from city streets and untreated sewage from the region’s outdated sewer systems, while the B.C. government authorizes industrial facilities to release contaminated water directly into the sea.

Seven hundred different contaminants were detected in Burrard Inlet between 1971 and 2016, according to a Tsleil-Waututh Nation report. At least 24 were found at levels that make it risky to consume food harvested from the inlet. 

The Narwhal dug into the sources of pollution in Burrard Inlet and the authorities that allow them to continue, in a sprawling portrait of this critical waterway. Here are five takeaways from that investigation.

21: the number of facilities authorized to release wastewater directly into Burrard Inlet

The B.C. government authorizes a range of facilities — from petroleum processors to chemical manufacturers — to release wastewater into Burrard Inlet. While some wastewater undergoes a degree of treatment, companies are not required to remove all contaminants. 

The provincial government authorizes 21 facilities to release wastewater into Burrard Inlet. Click the icons to learn how much wastewater each facilities is allowed to release and what contaminants it may contain. Map: Ainslie Cruickshank / The Narwhal

629: the number of kilograms of oil and grease that 4 companies are collectively permitted to release in a single day

One provincial water quality objective for Burrard Inlet states there should be no oil and grease present in the inlet. Yet, through wastewater authorizations, the province has given four companies a green light to release oil and grease into the sea. 

Oil giant Suncor Energy, bulk shipper PKM Canada Terminals, fuel supplier Parkland Refining and food waste recycler West Coast Reduction are together authorized to release up to 69,575 cubic metres of wastewater into Burrard Inlet in a single day. That wastewater is allowed to contain as much as 629 kilograms — roughly 100 bowling balls — of oil and grease.

Aerial photo of Seaspan Shipyards in the foreground with Vancouver Whaves, the Lions Gate Bridge and Stanley Park in the background
Across the inlet, 945 hectares of intertidal habitat — an area more than twice the size of Stanley Park — has been lost to urbanization and industrialization, according to a report by the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia and Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Photo: Jimmy Jeong / The Narwhal

The Narwhal reached out to those companies and only West Coast Reduction responded. That company’s “wastewater is treated on site and managed to the highest standards,” Jared Girman, West Coast Reduction’s director of government relations and strategic initiatives, said in a statement. 

West Coast Reduction supports the work being done by the Burrard Inlet water quality technical working group and “will continue to participate in this iterative process,” Girman added.

200: the number of kilograms of coal a company can spill on land without reporting it

In March, The Narwhal received a copy of a leaked video from a source who required confidentiality to avoid retribution. The video shows coal spilling off the side of a ship as it’s being loaded at Neptune Terminals.

Neptune Terminals did not report the incident, which took place last November. But after The Narwhal inquired about the spill, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy asked the company for a copy of the full video.

A photo of Neptune Terminals coal loading facility, with piles of coal and trains in teh foreground, and Burrard Inlet and Vancouver visible in the background
Neptune Terminals ships coal from mines in B.C. and Alberta to overseas markets. Photo: Jimmy Jeong / The Narwhal

According to the ministry, the video shows “an accidental release.” The majority of the coal remained on the vessel and the pier, a ministry spokesperson said in a statement to The Narwhal, noting “a minimal amount of coal may have entered into the marine environment.” Less than 100 kilograms of coal were estimated to have been spilled.

According to B.C.’s spill reporting regulation, coal spills on land larger than 200 kilograms or 200 litres — and any amount of coal spilled into water — must be reported to the province.

A clip of a video leaked to The Narwhal that shows coal spilling off the side of a ship as it’s being loaded at Neptune Terminals in the middle of the night in November 2023.

In a statement to The Narwhal, Lisa Dooling, director of people and community at Neptune Terminals, said after meeting with provincial environment staff the company determined the spill should have been reported. “Neptune continues to be committed to strong environmental practices, and to reporting future spills as required by the regulations,” she said.

The incident raises broader questions about how often spills or leaks occur and how often they go unreported.

1: the number of provincial inspections conducted over 7 years at 10 facilities authorized to release wastewater into Burrard Inlet 

A review of publicly available records shows provincial staff are not regularly inspecting facilities flanking Burrard Inlet to assess compliance with wastewater authorizations. 

While some facilities were inspected several times between 2017 and 2023, 10 facilities, including Neptune Terminals, were each inspected just once, according to the province’s natural resource compliance and enforcement database

Marine terminal being built with mountains in the background
The Trans Mountain pipeline carries crude oil from Alberta to the Westridge Marine Terminal, where it’s loaded onto tankers and transported overseas. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Inspection reports detailed a number of infractions. For instance, Trans Mountain Corporation was recently issued a warning letter for exceeding hexavalent chromium limits on more than 40 occasions between 2021 and 2023. Hexavalent chromium can cause organ damage in fish and other marine animals. It’s also the carcinogen at the centre of the Erin Brokovich story.

Trans Mountain Corporation did not directly address The Narwhal’s questions about its exceedances. In a statement, a spokesperson said, “Trans Mountain manages water onsite according to permit requirements, which includes the use of water treatment where required to ensure compliance with all permits and regulations.” The statement added that the company also complies with all reporting requirements.

52: the number of years shellfish harvesting in Burrard Inlet has been closed due to toxicity

The contamination has taken a severe toll. The inlet has been closed to shellfish harvesting since 1972 for public health reasons. Fecal coliform levels — bacteria from  human and animal excrement — alone make it risky to harvest clams but several other contaminants, from heavy metals to industrial chemicals, are also cause for concern.

The pollution has directly impacted Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s ability to practice its right to harvest food from the inlet. 

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Today, the nation can only harvest clams from one less-developed area of the inlet on rare occasions and after diligent testing.

Tsleil-Waututh Nation is intent on restoring Burrard Inlet. In a key step, the nation worked closely with the provincial government to develop and jointly approve new, more stringent water quality objectives. If met, they could set the stage for Tsleil-Waututh people to safely harvest seafood from the inlet once again. 

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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