100 bowling balls of oil and grease

Biodiversity reporter Ainslie Cruickshank dove deep into the state of pollution in Burrard Inlet, home to Canada’s busiest port
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An aerial shot over the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. There's industrial facilities and equipment on land and on the water, with blue ocean and sky and rolling forested hills

Vancouver is known for its beautiful surroundings. Take a walk along the seawall, gazing out across Burrard Inlet at the North Shore mountains, and you can see why. But imagine what this place was like before the concrete, before a massive port, before all the pollution.

“If you could have a time capsule from the 1750s to now, you’d think you’re on another planet or something, in a toxic wasteland,” Gabriel George, a member of Tsleil-Waututh Nation and director of the nation’s treaty, land and natural resources department, told me earlier this year. “This was an old-growth, ancient cedar rainforest.”

All the urban and industrial development of the past two centuries has taken an immense toll on the inlet — səl̓ilw̓ət as it’s called in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language.

It’s not just that cities have been built up around it, or that the natural shoreline has been destroyed in so many places. As I learned, pollution is pouring into the inlet around Canada’s busiest port every day.

Sprawling industrial facilities and railway tracks sit on a Burrard Inlet shoreline
A portrait of pollution around Canada’s busiest port

There’s runoff from city streets, untreated sewage that still overflows from outdated sewer systems during heavy rainstorms — and then there’s the wastewater laced with everything from heavy metals to toxic chemicals that the B.C. government allows companies to release daily into the inlet. And that’s just the pollution we know about; over the course of this reporting I was sent a video by a source (who asked to remain confidential for fear of reprisal) of an unreported coal spill at one of the terminals along the inlet.

In recent years, Tsleil-Waututh Nation has worked with the province to establish new, more stringent water quality objectives that, if met, could set the stage for the nation to safely harvest food from the inlet once again.

Implementing those objectives — such as ensuring there is no grease or oil in the inlet — could prove challenging. Right now, four companies are authorized by the province to release a total of up to 629 kilograms of oil and grease in a single day. Put another way, that’s 100 bowling balls’ worth of the contaminants. (Oh, and there’s also the not-so-small matter of an increase in tanker traffic now that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is up and running.)

If you have 15 minutes, go here to read the full story on how Tsleil-Waututh Nation is pushing for change. Want only the big takeaways? We’ve got five things you need to know about Burrard Inlet pollution. And if you just want to explore which companies are allowed to pollute, check out this map.

Take care and keep an eye on polluters,

Ainslie Cruickshank
B.C. biodiversity reporter
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Three young eagles in a nest. One has a small electronic device and transmitter on its back

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Did somebody say baby bald eagle?

Good news: bald eagles are back! Nearly wiped out by the now-banned pesticide DDT, the bird has returned to the Great Lakes in a big way. Ontario reporter Emma McIntosh’s story about the iconic raptor and its new nests is The Narwhal’s first contribution to The Checkup, this year’s project by the five-member cross-border Great Lakes News Collaborative.

From more mosquitos to floods and pharmaceuticals, The Checkup will focus on the lakes’ environmental challenges and how they affect our health. We’ll be adding stories as they’re published right over here.

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This week in The Narwhal

Illustration of John Rustad's face against the background of the B.C. legislature building
BC Conservative Leader says his party would kill ‘nonsense’ plans for new protected areas
By Shannon Waters
As the BC Conservatives surge in the polls, party leader John Rustad — kicked out of the BC Liberal caucus for promoting a tweet spreading misinformation about climate change — says he would scrap the province’s pledge to create new conserved areas.

Two moose munch on foliage in the front yard of a home on a residential street
It’s not that animals are coming into the city. It’s that the city is coming to them
By Amir Said
An industrial facility juts out into an ocean inlet
5 things to know about water pollution at Canada’s busiest port
By Ainslie Cruickshank

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What we’re reading

ProPublica has the inside scoop on how executives at 3M kept the lid on what they knew about the health risks of the PFAS or “forever chemicals” in their products.

The Toronto Star reports that impacts of historic mercury pollution near Grassy Narrows First Nation are being exacerbated by sulphate-infused industrial wastewater still being dumped in the river.
When you’re just so excited that the bald eagles are back. Tell your friends the good news and then have them sign up for our newsletter for more hopeful stories.
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