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An $11.4-billion terminal on Lelu Island, B.C., would have little impact on Flora Bank, a sandy area with eelgrass that nurtures juvenile salmon, according to recent studies.

Pacific Northwest LNG

B.C. environmentalists are upset that federal scientists have sided with a consortium's proposal to export liquefied natural gas.

The scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada agree with Pacific NorthWest LNG's studies that an $11.4-billion terminal would have little impact on Flora Bank, a sandy area with eelgrass that nurtures juvenile salmon in northern British Columbia. Flora Bank is located next to Lelu Island, the site of the proposed export terminal.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a letter last week to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency that Pacific NorthWest LNG has conducted rigorous scientific research to show that the project poses a low risk of causing any significant harm to Flora Bank in the Skeena River estuary.

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Greg Horne, energy co-ordinator with Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said Monday that a study commissioned by the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, published a year ago by SedTrend Analysis Ltd. president Patrick McLaren, isn't being given the attention that it deserves.

The SedTrend analysis warns that Pacific NorthWest LNG's project would disrupt a complex system of waves and currents that effectively holds Flora Bank in place. The consortium, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, wants to build a suspension bridge and trestle-supported pier to carry a pipeline from Lelu Island to a dock for loading LNG tankers bound for Asia.

Mr. Horne disputes the conclusion reached by federal scientists. "Dr. McLaren has shown that if they build the trestle, it will block the incoming waves, which will lead to Flora Bank eroding out to sea and being destroyed. That's my concern. That is peer-reviewed published science, which has more credibility than a Pacific NorthWest LNG report that has not been peer reviewed," Mr. Horne said.

"How do you know what to trust? Courts and the public should trust the peer-review process that scientists go through."

Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said he is dismayed at the prospect of construction of the terminal, bridge and pier.

"The bottom line is if you put infrastructure overtop of the most sensitive salmon habitat on the West Coast of Canada, you're going to have problems," Mr. Knox said. "When you look at the amount of blasting and underwater dredging, it's ridiculous to conclude that there won't be any significant impact."

John Helin, who was elected in November as the new mayor of Lax Kw'alaams, couldn't be reached for comment Monday.

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Fisheries and Oceans Canada, also known as DFO because it was formerly the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said in its letter to the environmental assessment agency that the trestle pilings will be small and "can be expected to have a very limited impact on Flora Bank."

However, the letter added that marine mammals would be sensitive to underwater noise from construction, so "DFO believes there remains a medium to high risk of the project having significant adverse effects on harbour porpoises."

The proposed suspension bridge over Flora Bank has been designed to vastly minimize dredging. That span would connect with a pier to a deep-berth location in Chatham Sound. Two supporting structures in the water should be circular in shape to reduce the environmental impact, federal scientists recommend.

Pacific NorthWest LNG says Flora Bank would remain stable during construction and operation of the LNG terminal, bridge and pier.

The consortium is aiming to start construction later this year, if the assessment agency grants approval. The federal regulator is expected to issue a draft report within weeks, and invite submissions during a 30-day public comment period.

A final decision by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna could be made by this April. The assessment agency started its review into Pacific NorthWest LNG in April, 2013.

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