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South Fraser Perimeter Road in activists' crosshairs

Part of the route being cleared for the South Fraser Perimeter Road. - Evan Seal / The Leader
Part of the route being cleared for the South Fraser Perimeter Road.
— image credit: Evan Seal / The Leader

Opponents of the South Fraser Perimeter Road are planning an extended occupation of a section of the route in a new bid to defeat the contentious truck freeway project they condemn as a climate crime.

The sit-in starts this Friday, Earth Day, along with the planting of trees in an area that's already been clear cut and prepped for the road in North Delta's Annieville neighbourhood.

It's being coordinated by activists from multiple groups under the banner of stopthepave.org.

"We're going to go in there and reforest that area," organizer Eric Doherty said. "And then some of us are going to stay for at least 48 hours to protect those trees."

He predicts some activists will camp out at the site for several days at least.

The groups have a lawyer at the ready and hope to impede work on the road.

Doherty said he believes direct action coupled with a court challenge launched by the Burns Bog Conservation Society can still stop construction of the $1.2-billion perimeter road, which will run 40 kilometres from Deltaport to the Golden Ears Bridge and Highway 1.

The money can be instead devoted to public transit, he said, and the land already acquired can become a park.

"It's too beautiful a spot and too ecologically important to be anything other than parkland."

If they're to win, victory will have to come soon.

The project is 27 per cent built and slated to finish in two stages by late 2012 and late 2013.

More than 560 properties have been acquired, including 93 homes that have or are being demolished, a dozen of which were expropriated.

Construction is underway throughout the route.

A transportation ministry spokesperson said peaceful protests are part of the democratic process and didn't anticipate any work would be held up.

The spokesperson added the entire route is a construction site and it will be important to ensure public safety.

The province is spending $80 million on agricultural improvements, water management protection for Burns Bog, fish habitat upgrades and remediation of old landfills and contaminated sites.

That's all a requirement of the federal and provincial environmental approvals for the project.

But critics contend the projects is coming at the expense of large swathes of farmland, some of the best First Nations archaelogical sites in the region and considerable amounts of wildlife and riparian zones.

North Surrey resident Tom Jaugelis thinks the habitat damage will be severe in areas where crews have already begun to cut directly into the bank of the Fraser River.

"It's really hard to imagine how they're going to be able to fit four lanes of traffic in a lot of those areas," said Jaugelis, one of the campaigners against the road.

Seoul, Korea, recently removed a freeway and restored urban streams and habitat, he noted.

"It's hard to imagine some really forward-looking cities are doing those kinds of things, while we're about to literally pave the bank of the Fraser River."

Even if the SFPR can't be stopped, Doherty said, the fight could help thwart the planned North Fraser Perimeter Road or other highway expansions in future.

"It's got to come to an end or else we're going to cook the planet," said Doherty, who expects the perimeter road will encourage more road use, causing it to fill up while increasing local pollution and carbon emissions.

Surrey mom P.J. Lilley said she fears her kids will be exposed to higher emissions because they attend a school in the perimeter road's "fallout zone."

The province maintains the project will dramatically reduce congestion, particularly on Delta's River Road, often jammed with trucks, as well as some arterial routes in Surrey.

North Delta NDP MLA Guy Gentner said he'll participate in the protest and said the route may ease traffic over the short term but will ultimately add to congestion.

He said if it was up to him, he would halt the project.

"This is a road to nowhere," Gentner said. "It's a colossal waste of money. It's going to move toll evaders from the Port Mann to the Alex Fraser and it's going to be one big parking lot – a mess for North Delta."

Asked if that meant tearing up the contract with the private partner, he said an NDP government would review the contract and carefully study its options, adding any decision would be up to the party's new leader.

It's not the first action against the perimeter road.

Last fall activists staged a dig-in, hauling away pre-loaded fill from the route that was later used in sandbags placed outside government cabinet offices.

They also built what they called the South Fraser Witness Trail along part of the SPFR route to bring attention to the green space being lost.

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