Fisheries and Oceans Canada has told the federal environmental regulator that Pacific NorthWest LNG's plan to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in northern British Columbia poses a low risk to juvenile salmon habitat.
Environmentalists and some First Nations argue that Pacific NorthWest LNG's construction activities would devastate Flora Bank, a sandbar with eelgrass that nurtures young salmon. The LNG joint venture, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, is seeking to build an $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island, which is located next to Flora Bank in the Skeena River estuary.
Fisheries and Oceans – also known as DFO because it was once the Department of Fisheries and Oceans – said that based on its analysis of scientific studies provided by Pacific NorthWest, potential threats to salmon are manageable.
"It is DFO's opinion that construction-related impacts to fish and fish habitat can be mitigated and subsequently has a low probability of resulting in significant adverse effects to fish and fish habitat," the federal department said in a recent letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
But the letter warns that construction could endanger marine mammals, such as the harbour porpoise.
"Commencing pile-driving activities at night represents a high risk to marine mammals. Consequently, DFO does not recommend that pile-driving activities commence at night, until such time as the various mitigation measures outlined by the proponent are implemented to the satisfaction of DFO," said the letter, signed by Cheryl Webb, a regional director with Fisheries and Oceans.
The Petronas-led consortium believes that a suspension bridge and trestle-supported pier – carrying a pipeline from Lelu Island to a berth for LNG carriers on Agnew Bank – would protect juvenile salmon habitat on Flora Bank and harbour porpoises nearby.
"It is anticipated that reorientation of the trestle and the associated relocation of the carrier berths away from Flora Bank will reduce the potential for morphological change to the southwest margin of Flora Bank," according to Ms. Webb's letter.
Environmentalists, however, say the pier in particular would threaten to disrupt a complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place. A report last year prepared by geologist Patrick McLaren for the aboriginal-backed Skeena Fisheries Commission raised environmental alarm bells about the prospect of Flora Bank vanishing if the export terminal is built.
The federal Liberal cabinet is expected to decide by early October on whether to approve Pacific NorthWest.
The project has been complicated by disputes within the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation. Donnie Wesley, a Lax Kw'alaams hereditary tribal chief, started a protest camp last August on Lelu Island. But a group of hereditary chiefs, the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams, formally announced its support in May for Pacific NorthWest.
Christopher Dafoe, a lawyer representing Mr. Wesley, wrote a letter last month that asks the Nine Tribes to apologize for casting doubt on his client's authority. The Nine Tribes organization has not yet issued a response.
Lax Kw'alaams Mayor John Helin has said he is open to backing the project, while former mayor Garry Reece is opposed.
Mr. Reece said Flora Bank and Lelu Island are part of the traditional territory of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams. In a recent statement, he described the Nine Tribes as a "splinter group, only recently formed."
Flora Bank must be protected, he said, pointing to scientific evaluations commissioned by the Lax Kw'alaams that indicate "a serious risk to the fisheries habitat and marine environment." He also criticized the Port of Prince Rupert for promoting the Lelu Island site instead of touting other locations, and recalled that he raised concerns dating back to his meeting with Petronas officials in late 2012.