CommunityAIR (CAIR) and NOW recently questioned safety at Billy Bishop Toronto Centre Airport (BBTCA). The PortsToronto (PosTO) pushback was interesting. Gene Cabral, PosTO and BBTCA executive VP, issued a letter to airport travellers attacking CAIR but offering little by way of countering CAIR’s contention. PosTO chair Mark McQueen used his Twitter pulpit to chide Ben Spurr NOW correspondent and author of the safety article. Cabral’s and McQueen’s reactions seem to indicate that questioning the airport’s safety struck a nerve in the organization.
PortsToronto promised an open and transparent EA process as part of its commitment to the city to win the city over with the PosTO’s airport expansion plans. However, would questions about safety in general and the effect of jet blasts in the harbour in particular prove equally sore points? Unravelling the byzantine path the two subjects have been led down indicates that the process is not as open and transparent as it could be and call for greater scrutiny of the BBTCA safety culture.
Early Innings and the Safety Promise
When PortsToronto issued its Request for Proposal for consultants to undertake its EA, it listed consideration of “the cumulative effects of physical activities associated with the proposed project” under the Scope of the Assignment and the purposes of the EA..
Indeed, as the EA facilitator Swerhun Facilitation reported after its pre-EA consultation conversations in September,
“We heard from some participants that they have safety and access concerns related to changes to the Marine Exclusion Zone (MEZ). Participants raised concerns regarding the safety of water users if the runway were to extend.”
“We heard from some participants that they have safety concerns related to jet blasts and jet wing tip vortexes.”
“ We also heard other safety concerns related to the introduction of jets. In addition to concerns about jet blast and potential MEZ extensions … .”
Safety, in general, and jet blast in particular were matters voiced by community members and fit under “the cumulative effects of physical activities associated with the proposed project”.
Then came two EA Information Sheets in early October.
Information Sheet 2 promised, “The community assets which will be evaluated, including the natural environment, social environment, and economic environment, as well as the goals and objectives the community has related to each of these assets.”
Information Sheet 3 promised consultation with community groups and resident associations and the boating community amongst others. There was every indication safety concerns would be treated seriously.
Shifting Priorities and Safety?
In mid-November PortsToronto responded to requests and questions about safety raised at September’s pre-EA consultation conversations. Or rather, PortsToronto didn’t respond. The three-page document contained no reference to safety or jet blast. It’s as if the subjects weren’t even raised at least not to the degree that PortsToronto would notice them. It was almost as if safety wasn’t a PortsToronto priority.
Around the same time, Swerhun Facilitation held a stakeholder meeting. Swerhun invited a representative from each of around 100 organizations that Swerhun identified as having an interest in the airport expansion issue. Swerhun reviewed the concerns raised at the pre-EA conversations.
PortsToronto’s Gene Cabral addressed the question of safety, sort of. However, rather than specifically addressing community concerns, he mentioned that “preliminary runway design will bring clarity around what is required with the MEZ” and more details would be forthcoming in subsequent meetings.
Mr. Cabral also mentioned Transport Canada’s Runway End Safety Area requirement that will necessitate a 43-metre extension on both ends of the present runway, long enough to accommodate PorterPlans. Although Mr. Cabral didn’t characterize it as such, this would appear to be a de facto expansion of the runway, the EA notwithstanding.
The Safety End Game
Safety and jet blast or blast concerns were voiced no fewer than 15 times according to Swerhun’s report on the first public meeting held December 9. One observer noted BBTCA was one of three airports, and the closest one nearest to residential areas, with diminished safety requirements. James Lindsay of AECOM, the PosTO’s consultants charged with overseeing the EA, somewhat enigmatically observed, “TP312 5th edition coming out soon. The design will be in compliance with existing TP3 12 4th edition.” The difference between the two was not explained.
Another observer noted, with reference to the material presented, “I didn’t see anything regarding jet blast?” to which the AECOM representative responded, “Jet blast will be part of the EA process.”
Subsequent to the November 17, 2014 Stakeholders Advisory Committee (SAC) briefing, the first SAC meeting took place on January 15, 2015. The meeting summary showed that members requested that information on the marine exclusion zone and the obstacle limitation surfaces and emergency response plans be made publicly available
Then something interesting happened. The handout for the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport Runway Extension Environmental Assessment Public Meeting – January 24, 2015, Community Assets and Measures of Effect, showed a number of safety related concerns moved from the EA to other areas of study.
Under Public Safety, for example, issues around bird strikes were shifted to runway design as was risk of explosion during fuel transport, handling or storage. As for jet blast and MEZ under the Recreation category, they will now be addressed as under the Master Planning Study.
Why the shift?
In the case of risk of explosion during fuel transport, handling or storage, PortsToronto has determined that risks of explosion fit more appropriately under runway design rather than transportation even though fuel is being transported through neighbourhoods.
Similarly, in the case of the effects of jet blast and MEZs, PortsToronto saw the concerns better addressed under the Master Planning Study. Curiously though, James Lindsey of WSP, the consultants responsible for PosTO’s revised draft master plan of 2014, advised Geoff Wilson, PosTO president and CEO, “ Should Toronto City Council approve Bombardier CS100 operations at BBTCA, this will significantly change the direction and scope of the Airport Master Plan. For this reason, it is recommended that such a revision to the Airport Master Plan only be if and when City Council approves CS100 operations.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson and the PortsToronto team ignored their consultant’s recommendation and soldiered on. PortsToronto may have disregarded Mr. Lindsey’s advice to wait for the city’s approval; however, PortsToronto seems to have agreed with his recommendation to include MEZs. Also within his letter, Mr. Lindsey stated that an emergency response study would not be part of a revised Master Plan Study. From it EA process to date, PortsToronto seems to have concurred.
At its January 24, 2015 public meeting, PortsToronto and WSP presented Master Planning Exercise with its commitment to undertake a jet blast analysis and return for a public appearance by late February with concepts. There was no mention of an emergency response study.
February has come and gone and there’s no word on a follow-up. As for jet blast, a member of the boating committee has enquired as to the authority responsible for ensuring that the MEZs placements are sufficient to provide for boater safety. So far there is no clear answer.
Perhaps it’s time for a closer look at the whole matter of safety for several reasons.
- PortsToronto officials have so far come up short in refuting CAIR’s claims of an inadequate emergency safety response.
- PortsToronto’s track record on shifting safety concerns from one study to another does not inspire confidence.
- PortsToronto’s apparent willingness to forego an emergency response study when by its own admission it is mandated to “provide for a high level of safety” is disconcerting.
- Finally, the lack of clarity with regards to the authority to ensure the marine community’s safety around the MEZs is worrisome.
Each shortcoming in isolation is cause enough for concern about the degree of seriousness placed on safety at BBTCA, PortsToronto, bromides notwithstanding. Taken together they demand a thorough vetting of all aspects of safety at BBTCA before a royal commission investigating a disaster at the airport is called for after the fact.