Once regarded as an industrialized wasteland, the waters of Howe Sound are now a shining example of environmental remediation. But as the area’s tourism industry gathers momentum, are the winds of change still blowing in the right direction?
By Feet Banks
The rain drizzled continuously and the thick grey clouds hung so low on the mountainsides that the forest seemed to breathe in and exhale. All in all it was a typical March day on Howe Sound…except it wasn’t typical at all. A pod of dolphins had come in to feed and hunt spawning herring and a pod of orcas had come in to hunt dolphins. Thousands of spectators lined the shore of Squamish Harbour to witness something very few living people have ever seen— the whales had returned to Howe Sound.
Howe Sound is a deep, narrow finger of ocean that stretches 42 kilometres up from West Vancouver to Squamish. Each year about 2.3 million visitors travel its eastern shore by road or rail en route to Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton. Lined with steep granite mountains covered in lush rainforest and topped with snowfields and glaciers, the sound is the southernmost fjord in North America and would be protected as parkland in most countries on the planet. In British Columbia, however, history has not been kind to Howe Sound (see Timeline).
After over 100 years of heavy industry that included leaching copper mines, sulfuric pulp mills and a leaky chemical plant oozing mercury all over the Squamish waterfront, the past decade has seen Howe Sound make an incredible recovery. As boom-and-bust industries closed down and governments clued in to the need to clean up past mistakes, the waters of Howe Sound began to sparkle in ways they hadn’t in generations.
“I’ve been walking the oceanfront lands in Squamish for the past ten or twelve years,” says Squamish councillor Patricia Heinztman (Heinztman has become Mayor of Squamish since this article was released), “and you can see the changes, the different life that’s come out on the water’s edge. The mill is closed. It cost about $100 million to clean up the Britannia Mine and another $45 million for the chemical plant on the Squamish waterfront. Thanks to that and some incredible local advocacy groups like the Squamish Streamkeepers we’ve seen the return of herring, salmon, crabs, and now the orcas. It is amazing.”
But the progress may not last long. After all the environmental remediation (much of it paid for with taxpayers dollars), the BC Provincial Government under Premier Christy Clark, is now considering a host of new large-scale industrial projects for the Howe Sound area. These include BC’s first Liquefied Natural Gas export facility, a massive open pit gravel mine, multiple logging woodlots and run-of-river hydro generators, and an “Incineration Facility” to burn 370,000 tonnes of Metro Vancouver’s garbage.
As soon as things started looking up, the threat of being pushed backwards into a reindustrialization cycle now looms larger than the snowcapped peaks lining Howe Sound’s shores. And many local residents aren’t buying in, especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to get hard facts and confirmed numbers about job creation and economic benefits to the area.
“I think fundamentally the people living around Howe Sound have shifted from a primarily industrial focus to one that still has some appetite for industry, but it has to be clean. Where everyone draws that line is debatable, but no one wants to go back to the air and water quality issues that plagued Howe Sound for 50 years.” —Patricia Heinztman
“I think fundamentally the people living around Howe Sound have shifted from a primarily industrial focus to one that still has some appetite for industry, but it has to be clean,” Heintzman says. “Where everyone draws that line is debatable, but no one wants to go back to the air and water quality issues that plagued Howe Sound for 50 years.”
Lions Bay resident Ruth Simons draws her line in a very public place. As executive director of the Future of Howe Sound Society, she’s been very busy since 2012 advocating for stewardship of the Sound and keeping other concerned citizens engaged.
“I think the province and the federal government need to realize the social and economic value of this particular area,” Simons says, adding that one of the problems is that Howe Sound falls under three different Regional Districts and no one is not looking at the larger picture or scrutinizing projects to ensure previous investments made towards preserving the area remain intact.
“A lot of the environmental assessments are only assessing the individual projects,” she explains. “They need to look at the cumulative effects of multiple projects as well. We are not saying no to economic activity and industry, but there needs to be a better process and more information shared to determine the sustainability of these projects.”
So far the Province hasn’t responded to requests for a local management plan designed to coordinate and share information on Howe Sound projects. Or if they have responded, it’s been with disdain. BC Premier Christy Clark wouldn’t even come to the opening of the Sea to Sky Gondola, a brand new, $22 million privately funded project that literally gives people a “big picture” view of Howe Sound. From the gondola’s upper lodge, suspension bridge and hiking trails guests are treated to sweeping ocean and mountain views that cement Howe Sound as a viable tourism attraction in its own right.
“This is a dangerous scam by some businessmen from Indonesia who want to take natural gas we don’t really have and ship it overseas for the purpose of making money. And we have a Provincial government which is is aiding and abetting them and who will not be able deliver the jobs and prosperity they have promised.” —Eoin Finn, Howe Sound resident
Except there are plans to throw an experimental floating LNG export facility right smack dab in the middle of that view, and faced with the shady reputation of the Facility’s owner and still-murky information about local employment and tax benefits, many Howe Sounders are left shaking their heads.
“This is a dangerous scam by some businessmen from Indonesia who want to take natural gas we don’t really have and ship it overseas for the purpose of making money,” says retired Howe Sound resident Eoin Finn. “And we have a Provincial government which is is aiding and abetting them and who will not be able deliver the jobs and prosperity they have promised.”
Finn holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry and a MBA in International business with 25 years of experience, most of it with a large accounting firm. He can understand the faulty economics of BC’s natural gas export plans just as easily as the damaging effects it will have on global warming, but mostly he’s worried how these industrial projects will affect BC’s tourism industry.
“Over two million people drive past Howe Sound each year on the way to Whistler,” he says. “My concern is that if they have to go past a garbage incinerator, a gravel mill, clearcut logging patches on Gambier Island and then a floating LNG plant; that is not the image tourists have, or have been sold on for Super, Natural® British Columbia. These projects will be a serious blow to the local economy and the publically funded image of Super, Natural BC that we have spent the past 30 years building up. SuperIndustrial BC is not a tourist draw, and a return to boom-and-bust resource industry cycles would serve this province poorly.”
“These projects will be a serious blow to the local economy and the publically funded image of Super, Natural BC that we have spent the past 30 years building up. SuperIndustrial BC is not a tourist draw, and a return to boom-and-bust resource industry cycles would serve this province poorly.” —Eoin Finn
Squamish in particular, is benefitting from Howe Sound’s new clean and Super, Natural image. Historically considered the stinking armpit of the Sea to Sky Corridor (ever smell a pulp mill up close?), Squamish was recently named “Best Mountain Town in North America” by CNNMoney.com. Just a few months earlier pinkbike.com, the world’s top mountain biking website, announced it would relocate offices to Squamish, and families from Whistler to Vancouver are flocking to the town for the beauty and outdoor recreation including rock climbing, whitewater paddling and backcountry skiing. The Squamish Spit, at the head of Howe Sound, is considered one of the best places on the planet for kiteboarding.
“Howe Sound creates a perfect thermal wind that gets funneled up the valley like no other place on earth,” says Mark Gray of the Squamish Kiteboarding School. “It switches on at 10:00 a.m. and shuts off at 7:00 p.m. It’s like a perfect wind machine and on busy summer day at The Spit there can be 100 kites in the water and another 50 on the beach coming or going.”
Tie in the return of a recreational and commercial salmon, prawn and crab fishery and 2014 seems like the absolute worst time to inundate Howe Sound with an unorganized mish mash of heavy industry – especially if you are a whale.
“Most First Nations’ translations refer to the Orcas as the ‘Blackfish’ or the ‘Sea Wolf’; we call them ‘Yew Yews’ and they are very important to our people. When we were brought down from the heavens our creator gifted us with our tools, but it was from the animals that we learned about our world. It is a very important event to have them return.” —Squamish Nation ambassador Roxy Lewis
“Most First Nations’ translations refer to the Orcas as the ‘Blackfish’ or the ‘Sea Wolf,’” says Squamish Nation ambassador Roxy Lewis. “We call them ‘Yew Yews’ and they are very important to our people. When we were brought down from the heavens our creator gifted us with our tools, but it was from the animals that we learned about our world.”
Squamish First Nations culture considers the “Yew Yews” guardians of the sea and of travel, as well as a symbol for unity and goodness. “It is a very important event to have them return,” Lewis says.
And everyone who watched the Orcas and the dolphins that rainy morning in March 2014 will agree with that. The last 100 years have not been kind to Howe Sound, but now it’s more important than ever to remember this history, lest we are doomed to repeat it.
For more information on the various projects planned for Howe Sound and the concerns of local residents, the best place to go is futureofhowesound.org.
Time Immemorial— Squamish and Shishalh First Nations travel and live throughout the territory that will eventually become Howe Sound.
1791 — Spanish explorers sail past the entrance, but do not explore the sound.
1792— Captain George Vancouver and crew navigate and survey the sound. Captain George names it Howe Sound after British Naval Officer Earl Howe.
1888— Copper discovered in the hills near Britannia Creek.
1900— Britannia Copper Mine opens. By 1929, it is the largest copper mine in the British Empire. Steamships travel up and down the sound regularly.
1909— Pulp Mill opens at Port Mellon, on the western shores of Howe Sound.
1912— Woodfibre Pulp Mill opens on the Western shore of Howe Sound just south of Squamish. Air quality goes downhill quickly.
1915— PGE Railway buys existing track and opens railway leading North from Squamish.
1941— Camp Potlatch, a wilderness camp for children, opens on 133-acres of boat-accessed How Sound Wilderness.
1956— Railway linking Squamish to North Vancouver completed.
1959— Highway 99 extended from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish.
1965— Chlor-alkali chemical plant opens on 59 acres of the Squamish waterfront.
1972— Squamish Terminals open deep water port.
1974— Britannia Mine closes, but the 200 km of underground tunnels continue to collect rainwater and the toxic, acidic runoff leaches as much as 450 kilograms (992 pounds) of copper into Howe Sound each day through a polluting process called Acid Rock Drainage.
1980s— Crab fishery in Howe Sound closes due to pollution.
1988— Port Mellon Pulp Mill retrofitted into one of the cleanest pulp mills in the world (Price tag: $1.3 billion).
1991— Squamish chlor-alkali chemical plant shuts down.
1999—Ministry of Environment orders groundwater treatment and other systems installed at old chlor-alkali chemical plant site to deal with mercury-tainted water and land. (Eventual Pricetag: $45 million).
2002—Government funded Britannia Water Treatment plant finally opens (Price tag: $20 million) to clean the Acid Rock Drainage water before it enters the sound. Millions more are spent each year to keep it running.
2004— District of Squamish obtains “Oceanfront” lands at chemical plant site with big plans for tourism and community expansion.
2006— Woodfibre pulp mill closes. Squamish no longer smells like a wet fart.
2006— Squamish Streamkeepers Society works with Squamish Terminals to reinvigorate herring stocks in the sound.
2006— Albertan conservative Stephen Harper elected as prime minister. Canada starts looking more and more like Tolkien’s Mordor.
2010 — Proposal for massive open pit gravel mine at McNab Creek prompts Howe Sound residents to demand comprehensive management plan. Citizens start futureofhowesound.org.
2010— First grey whale spotted in Howe Sound in 100 years. Dolphins spotted regularly.
2011—Squamish chemical site groundwater treatment systems turned off. Water deemed safe for public.
2011— Christy Clarke becomes Premier of BC, hangs her entire campaign and the future of the province on unconfirmed economic benefits of becoming a Liquefied Natural Gas producer/exporter.
2012— Commercial salmon fishery reopens in Howe Sound for the first time in 50 years.
2013— 212-acre Woodfibre site sold for $25.5 million to Woodfibre Natural Gas Ltd. which plans to build a Liquefied Natural Gas compression and export facility. New owner Sukanto Tanoto has one of the worst environmental and animal rights records on the planet.
2013— Metro Vancouver eyes Port Mellon, on the Western shores of Howe Sound, for its proposed $500-million garbage incineration facility.
2014— BC Government advertises logging woodlots for sale on Gambier Island in the heart of Howe Sound.
2014—Sea to Sky Gondola opens to rave reviews. Private investment of $22 million offers stunning views and huge tourism potential. Premier Christy Clark shamefully refuses to attend opening ceremonies.
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