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mark hume

Premier Christy Clark has made it clear she wants government to proceed quickly with liquefied natural gas development in British Columbia.

But how fast is too fast?

That question is being raised in the wake of a decision to notify the public over the holiday period about a B.C. application concerning the environmental assessment of a proposed Woodfibre Natural Gas Ltd. plant near Squamish.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency issued a press release on Tuesday, Dec. 17, informing the public that the B.C. government had applied to substitute the provincial environmental-assessment process for the federal one.

The federal government gave the public until Monday, Jan. 6, to comment.

Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day all fell during the public comment period.

Therefore, people worried about the building of a $1.6-billion LNG loading facility in Howe Sound had 10 working days to articulate and file their concerns about the proposed process change.

Of course, many people were busy with holiday festivities during that time, never saw the press release, and until now had no idea that they have just one day left to comment on the proposal that B.C. handle the environmental assessment.

With Ms. Clark hanging the credibility of her government on LNG development, there will be those who doubt the objectivity of the B.C. environmental-assessment process when it comes to this industry.

Vel Anderson, a member of the Elphinstone Electors Association, a citizens group in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, is one of those.

"I really believe it's beneficial to have both [levels of government involved]," Ms. Anderson said.

"[The federal assessment] will cover an extensive amount of concerns … whereas possibly the provincial process isn't as stringent."

Ms. Anderson said she believes people who live in Vancouver, West Vancouver, Gibsons, Lions Bay, Bowen Island and Squamish know little about the LNG project.

The project would see 40 LNG tankers a year plying the waters of Howe Sound.

"It's frightening what has happened," she said. "Here on this coast we received no information. … There's been nothing in our two local daily newspapers.

"There's been nothing about the facility that's going to go in at Woodfibre and yet we will be directly affected throughout this whole process."

In an e-mail she sent to the federal government on Friday, Ms. Anderson asked that the public deadline be extended until after an open house has been held on the Sunshine Coast.

In an e-mail she sent to the federal government on Friday, Ms. Anderson asked that the public deadline be extended until after an open house has been held on the Sunshine Coast.

"Thousands of people around the Coastal area of Howe Sound will be directly affected, and deserve to be informed," she wrote.

"Having this public comment period slated for over the holiday season, one wonders what's going on," she added in an interview. "It doesn't look like we're really invited to comment."

Ms. Anderson is also concerned about a $360-million, 52-kilometre pipeline that FortisBC Energy (Vancouver Island) Inc. proposes to build from Coquitlam to the Woodfibre LNG plant, just seven kilometres southwest of Squamish. But public comment on that project, which is being environmentally assessed by the province, closed Dec. 16. If you blinked, you may have missed it.

When Ms. Anderson wrote to B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office to register her concerns about the pipeline, she was told she was too late to comment. Her e-mail was sent five minutes before midnight, Dec. 16.

The Woodfibre LNG plant is proposed for an old industrial site that has sat empty since 2006, after being used for nearly a century by pulp mills. Howe Sound is going through a period of remarkable ecological recovery in recent years, and there are understandable concerns about renewed industrial activity. But the company proposes to clean up the old site and do habitat improvement on a nearby salmon stream. Company consultations with First Nations are well under way and, so far at least, the Squamish Nation seems supportive. The associated pipeline would follow an existing pipeline route, creating minimal environmental impact.

So the project, on many fronts, looks like it could easily win support. Instead, the government has created a sense of unease by appearing to rush the process of public consultation.