Credit: Nik West

Darrell Desjardin, director of environmental programs for the Vancouver Port Authority, is running late this morning. Word has it he had to deal with some inexcusable black smoke issuing from a chimney on one of the tankers out at Delta Port. He missed our scheduled boat tour of Burrard Inlet, but he’s back in time to meet me in the Port Authority offices.

A goateed, motorcycle-driving, friendly bear of a man, Desjardin comes off more the suburban hockey dad with a past than the environmental conscience of one of the federal government’s largest corporations, though the BlackBerry strapped to his belt gives him away. With the potential amalgamation of the Fraser, Delta and Vancouver ports still to be decided, he tells me by way of excusing the state of his office, that he doesn’t know if he’s staying or going. “It looks like a bomb hit it,” he says before he ushers me inside.

Port amalgamation isn’t the only explosive question Desjardin and his team are dealing with these days. (He heads a crew of seven for the Port Authority environmental department, all working diligently at the pod-like desks fanning out behind his office.) With international pressure mounting, emanating in large part from the smog-infested port cities of California and Europe, the shipping industry and the ports that support it are receiving some unaccustomed attention. A combination of low-end, sulfur-rich bunker fuel (the dregs of refined oil), dinosaur-age engines, unregulated international waters and a steep rise in international shipping trade has led a team of U.S. scientists to predict that world shipping activity and energy use are on track to double by 2030.

Supporting that claim closer to home, a 2003 forecast by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (since renamed to Metro Vancouver) predicted that the annual amount of smog-related marine emissions, if left unchecked, was on track to climb from 30,000 tonnes in 2005 to close to 50,000 tonnes by 2025. These emissions, high in sulfur content (from the unrefined fuel), nitrogen oxide (from the inefficient engines), and particulate matter (from both), are heavy contributors to smog, acid rain, air-borne illnesses such as asthma or cancer, and global warming.

With one cargo ship sailing into our port releasing as much pollution as 350,000 of our newest cars in one hour – and no government or international regulations in place to mitigate the problem – Vancouver’s international shipping industry is the sleeping giant of local sustainability crises. Desjardin and his crew face the daunting task of waking up the giant, giving him a shower, and making sure he behaves. Even if a bomb hasn’t actually hit Desjardin’s office yet, you can certainly hear it ticking.

Today, however, the office doesn’t look all that bad. Papers litter the desk, while a few boxes are stacked on the floor. Photos of his family, sea creatures, and one shot of himself in scuba gear decorate the walls, along with a Mayor’s Environmental Achievement Award (“For our Ballast Water Exchange program,” Desjardin says, noticing me eyeing it; “we were the first port in Canada to do it”) and an old-style ship clock. His bookshelf is an assortment of travel and self-help books and left-wing press. On top of the shelf, beside one lonely plant, sits a medicinal-looking bottle with “bio-diesel” scrawled across the front. “Controlled chaos,” Desjardin says, with a sheepish grin.
The question is, how much longer can Desjardin control this chaos? Navigating environmental responsibility through a bureaucratic maze – ships are internationally regulated, the Vancouver Port is a federal jurisdiction, highways and trains that transport port cargo are provincial, and air-quality control is municipal – is tricky, at the best of times.

The Gateway Program, one of the driving forces behind the port amalgamation, estimates that by 2020 port traffic will increase up to 2.5 times its current numbers – a jump of more than 130 million tonnes of cargo a year. This unprecedented growth rate, fuelled in large part by China’s billowing economy, is forcing the Port Authority to upgrade efficiency standards at current facilities, invest in more effective cargo handling technologies, and expand its holdings. Not to mention the Port’s collaborative work with local and provincial governments, as well as CN and Via rail, redesigning our highways and railways in order to move this “Gateway” cargo to and fro.

The proposed Delta Port berth expansion went through four years of environmental studies and discussions with the local First Nations before it was agreed that the project had, according to Desjardin, “no negative environmental impact that couldn’t be mitigated.” Of course, mitigation is the key. The burden of responsibility for Desjardin’s environmental department is getting heavier by the day.

The problem, however, is not just an environmental one. Ian Bruce, emission specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, argues that it’s about competing economic visions.

The Gateway Program and its supporters (the Vancouver Port Authority among them), want the increased trade. Others aren’t so sure. The widening of Highway 1 and twinning of the Port Mann Bridge called for by the Gateway Program are examples of the impact that increased trade could have on the Lower Mainland.

“This Program is in direct violation of the Livable Region Strategic Plan,” Bruce insists. It’s a dilemma that Vancouverites are hearing a lot about these days. One of the main draws for businesses coming to the Vancouver area is its inherent livability (our nature, culture, and lifestyle), yet said livability is under constant threat by any large-scale increase in business-related traffic – almost all of which leads at some point to the port. “The plan is to make Vancouver a baggage handler for the country,” Bruce says, referring to the Port expansion. “Do we put a cap on that?”

“And that’s what keeps me up at night,” Desjardin says, laughing, when I ask him that very question. He tells me how Delta Port had to prove its sustainability after four years of exhaustive consultation, but the same process at Terminal 2 (Roberts Bank) is still to come. “We can only grow so much,” he says, struggling to find the words. “We all live in a beautiful place. We want to make sure our growth is sustainable.”

attempting to blend unprecedented economic growth with the principles of sustainable growth without any real authority over the industry has forced Desjardin and his team to get creative.
An environmental incentive program, unveiled by the Port Authority in April, rewards ocean-going vessels that use lower-sulfur fuels and higher-efficiency engines with less expensive docking fees. A new trucking program, to be introduced early next year, will phase out port trucks older than 1996 (when efficiency standards for new trucks were regulated), while encouraging truckers to upgrade the diesel technology on their existing vehicles. The Container Truck Idle Reduction Program, a collaboration with local environmental group Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST), minimizes the amount of time truck exhausts spew out unnecessary pollution.

A cleaner port means cleaner technology – which means the Port Authority working with its tenants (the private companies that run much of the shipping operations) to upgrade their existing machinery. The Port, along with Terminal Systems Incorporated, one of its tenants, recently invested in higher efficiency rubber-tired gantry canes (RTGs), which retrieve containers from storage without having to sort through an entire stack. Soon, these will be replaced by hybrid RTGs, which will reduce the entire RTG fleet emissions by 50 per cent.

As sustainable city development drives more and more condo towers closer to port, Desjardin and his crew have introduced a program to address noise and light concerns for the local residents. An annual Ocean Day event helps raise awareness of the port marine life, while the Port Authority offices themselves, at the north end of Canada Place, won the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) Gold Award for Sustainable Office.
How much more, you might ask, can one seven-person department do? A lot more, it would seem. “We’re picking cherries from easy branches,” says Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini. As chair of the Metro Vancouver environment committee, Trasolini attended the second annual Canada Maritime Conference, held beside the Vancouver Port at the Westin Bayshore this past September.

There, he learned about the aggressive environmental programs at the L.A. and Long Beach ports. The San Pedro Bay

Ports Clean Air Action Plan is expected to decrease port-related emissions by 47 percent in the next five years. Ambitious projects include supplying shore-side electricity (“cold-ironing” in industry-speak) so all dormant ships can shut off their diesel engines while in port, and a $200-million plan to replace 16,000 “dirty trucks” with cleaner models. Along with this, the California government has passed regulations insisting on low-sulfur fuels for all shipping activity in its waters (a court challenge by the shipping industry is currently in the works). “We need to go there,” says Trasolini, insisting that our port should be leading the way. “That’s where the authority lies – it’s a federal jurisdiction.”

Howard Breen, marine campaigner for Travel Just, a non-profit group that promotes ethically and environmentally responsible tourism, agrees, and feels the port isn’t doing nearly enough. “They’re scrambling to put their best PR foot forward,” he says, on the phone from his home on Gabriola Island, “without bringing any serious effort towards transforming the shipping industry.”

I ask him what he would do if he was in charge. With on-shore power, he answers, newer technology – which has shrunk costs from millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands – allows for a quick plug-in on the bow of the vessel; he would insist the governments, BC Hydro and the shipping industry collaborate to make this happen.

In the 2000 and 2003 provincial budgets, Breen continues, Premier Gordon Campbell eliminated taxes on the higher-polluting bunker and diesel fuels. “I would be making noise about that issue,” he says. Pressure needs to grow for high-sulfur fuels to be eliminated. In Europe, the Baltic and North seas have been designated “sulfur reduction areas,” one small measure that is expected
to decrease ship emissions eight per cent by 2020. “Canada could have designated a low-sulfur area for inland seas,” Breen argues. “This would require the federal and provincial governments working collaboratively to make this happen. They haven’t shown the political will.”

And why not? If ports in Europe and California are setting regulations for their ships and cargo-related activities, why aren’t we? The answer is simple: we’re afraid. The federal and provincial governments want the trade. The municipal governments want the jobs. If we start making it difficult for the ships, they – and all their cargo – may simply drift away.

The California ports wield extraordinary power based on their numbers. More than US$300 billion a year worth of trade goes through the San Pedro Bay ports alone. This compares with $53 billion going through Vancouver – despite being, according to the Port Authority’s 2006 annual report, “Canada’s largest and busiest port.”

Eight European ports are ahead of the environmental curve, and have formed the Ecoports Foundation in order to enact consistent regulations for all of its members. While efforts at alliances have been made at the Vancouver Port (it is a member of the West Coast Diesel Collaborative, and co­operated with the Port of Tacoma and Seattle on a recent air quality assessment survey), actions beyond incentive, education, and awareness programs – along with emission inventories and co-funded technology trials – have not yet materialized.

“There’s talk about increasing trade by five times the current numbers,” says the Suzuki Foundation’s Ian Bruce. “We need some very strong measures that are mandatory, not voluntary.”
how desjardin ended up in a window office at Canada Place with the burden of preserving Vancouver’s pristine environment from the onslaught of international trade is still a mystery to him. After graduating from UBC with a degree in chemistry and biochemistry in 1986, like many of his fellow grads, he couldn’t find a job anywhere in his field. He ended up working for a company helping to clean up gas stations. This led him to take on consulting positions with larger
gas companies, such as Shell and Imperial Exxon, which landed him on the banks of Alaska in March 1989, helping with the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill.

The heightened awareness and media attention this accident brought to the shipping and port industry inspired the Vancouver Port Authority to start its own environmental department, the first of its kind in Canada. John Jordan, a leading Canadian scientist in the field, was hired to form a two-person squad. Desjardin had worked with Jordan in the past, and the rest is history. “I thought I would stay for five years,” Desjardin admits. “It’s been over 15.”

His role to begin with was simple: coordinate all environmental audit programs and spill-response procedures. Since there was no other model to follow in Canada, Jordan and Desjardin took numerous trips down to the Port of L.A. As the first port in the U.S. to have an environmental department, it had been working with these issues since the early ’80s. Desjardin and Jordan did a “comprehensive survey of what’s out in the harbour” – with Desjardin logging over 150 dives in one year alone – taking photos and providing analysis of the affect the Port’s activities were having on the local marine environment.

As the years passed and the notion of sustainable port operations arose, the Port’s environmental department grew, absorbing the appropriate skills and expertise along the way. When Jordan left, Desjardin took over. His last hiring – an air quality expert – was in 2004, bringing his legion to seven. Next up? He plans to hire a full-time liaison with the public on noise and light concerns from the 24-hour-a-day shipping traffic.

He doesn’t make it sound easy, but director of the Vancouver Port Authority Environmental Department is a mantle Desjardin wears with a curious mixture of pride, optimism and earnest concern. As a sport diver and member of his local Streamkeepers organization, he is vocal about the need for protection of all marine life – threatened or not. In the summer, he rides his motorcycle to work (despite growing complaints from his resident air-quality expert), and in the winter takes public transit, all in an effort to lower his carbon footprint. Desjardin and his staff stage competitions over who has had the least environmental impact each month, alongside “lunch and learns” for the greater Port Authority workforce on relevant environmental issues. It all adds up to a noticeable shade of green cast across the Vancouver Port Authority’s state-of-the-art Canada Place offices.

But outside, the vessels continue to congregate: the bulk tankers loading wheat, potash and lumber for transport across the Pacific and the container ships dumping thousands of tonnes of ready-to-sell goods destined for retail stores across the country. The numbers don’t lie: total tonnage of goods moving through the Vancouver Port has grown by an annual average of four per cent over the past five years. If it isn’t here already, the flood is on its way. Is Desjardin’s proverbial thumb big enough – does the seven-member Port Authority environmental department have enough proverbial thumbs – to hold the oncoming wave at bay?