Canada's environmental regulator is offering assurances to B.C. aboriginals who fish upstream along the Skeena River that Pacific NorthWest LNG's export project won't ruin their salmon catches.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency says the Gitanyow First Nation will still be able to fish if an $11.4-billion terminal is built to export liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island in northwestern British Columbia.
"The asserted fishing rights of Gitanyow Nation can continue to be practised in the same or similar manner as before," the agency said in a recent letter to Glen Williams, chief negotiator for Gitanyow hereditary chiefs.
Mr. Williams said in an interview that he is disappointed with the view of agency officials. "They've pretty well made their determination already about the project, despite our efforts. We're opposed to the site and concerned about the impact to Flora Bank and the future of our food supply," he said.
Pacific NorthWest LNG believes a proposed suspension bridge and pier would avoid harming the sensitive eelgrass beds that are crucial for nurturing juvenile salmon on Flora Bank, a sandbar located next to Lelu Island in the Skeena River estuary.
The Gitanyow's traditional territory is roughly 150 kilometres northeast of Flora Bank.
Mr. Williams and Garry Reece, the former mayor of Lax Kw'alaams, urged the environmental assessment agency in July to extend the regulatory review by at least another four months. But Mr. Williams said the federal agency has rejected that request.
In a statement on Wednesday, the agency said the timeline for a federal cabinet decision by early October remains in place.
"This time is being used efficiently as the agency completes its work with the project's technical working group, including indigenous groups and federal experts," the regulator said.
The agency added that it is in the process of finalizing "the environmental assessment report and recommended environmental assessment conditions for the project, taking into account all comments and studies received on the project."
Environmentalists, some First Nations and a group of scientists argue that Pacific NorthWest LNG chose a location in which construction of the LNG terminal and related infrastructure would ruin the eelgrass.
The Gitanyow, Wet'suwet'en, Lake Babine and Gitxsan say their worries have been largely ignored because their territories are farther away from Flora Bank than other First Nations.
As part of the regulatory process, Pacific NorthWest LNG has been consulting with four of five Tsimshian First Nations – the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala and Kitsumkalum. Those four groups have signed term sheets that are intended to lead to impact benefit agreements, said Spencer Sproule, Pacific NorthWest LNG's senior adviser of corporate affairs.
Flora Bank and Lelu Island are part of the traditional territory of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams. That group opposes the LNG project while a rival organization at Lax Kw'alaams supports development plans.
Since April, 2013, the federal regulator has been examining Pacific NorthWest LNG's plans. Over the past three years, there have been six pauses in a process that industry officials initially believed would take two years at most.
On June 27 of this year, the agency restarted the regulatory clock, with five days remaining on what had been intended to be a 365-day timeline, excluding pauses. On July 2, a three-month extension period for the review began at the request of the agency. That means the federal cabinet has until early October to issue its ruling on whether to approve Pacific NorthWest LNG, which is led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.
Patrick McLaren, a geologist who is president of SedTrend Analysis Ltd., raises the prospect of Flora Bank vanishing if the B.C. project is built. He wrote a new report last month, commissioned by the Gitanyow, criticizing the assessment agency's analysis that there would be a low risk of damage to Flora Bank.
In an interview, Dr. McLaren said Pacific NorthWest LNG presented flawed information to the regulator. He argues that there have been ample scientific studies dating back to the 1970s that conclude Flora Bank should be left undeveloped due to the environmental risks.
Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said environmental mitigation programs envisaged by the Petronas-led group won't be enough to protect Flora Bank.