Lax Kw'alaams members voting in the final of three meetings have unanimously rejected a $1-billion cash offer from Pacific NorthWest LNG, declining to give aboriginal consent sought by the project while creating uncertainty for plans to export liquefied natural gas from British Columbia's north coast.
The lure of the money, which would be spread over 40 years, is being overshadowed by what the native group views as excessive environmental risks. The Lax Kw'alaams fear the Pacific NorthWest LNG project led by Malaysia's Petronas will harm juvenile salmon habitat in Flora Bank, located next to the proposed export terminal site on Lelu Island.
"The terminal is planned to be located in the traditional territory of the Lax Kw'alaams," the aboriginal group's band council said in a statement Wednesday. "Only Lax Kw'alaams have a valid claim to aboriginal title in the relevant area – their consent is required for this project to proceed. There are suggestions governments and the proponent may try to proceed with the project without consent of the Lax Kw'alaams. That would be unfortunate."
In the first vote in Lax Kw'alaams, 181 eligible voters unanimously stood up to indicate their opposition to the LNG proposal. In the second vote in Prince Rupert, the pattern continued as 257 eligible voters declined to provide aboriginal consent. Tuesday night's vote at a downtown Vancouver hotel made it three unanimous rejections in a row, said Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece.
In Vancouver, 112 Lax Kw'alaams members stood up to convey their no votes, two sources close to the native group said. Dozens of others phoned and e-mailed band officials to signal their opposition.
The voting tally "sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue," the Lax Kw'alaams band council said. "This is environmental and cultural."
Mr. Reece and 12 elected councillors will make the final decision on behalf of the 3,600-member band. They left the door open for good-faith negotiations, as long as those discussions don't involve being too close to Flora Bank.
"Lax Kw'alaams is open to business, to development and to LNG," including talks with Pacific NorthWest LNG, according to the statement.
An estimated 800 people live in the community of Lax Kw'alaams, while roughly 1,800 are based in Prince Rupert and another 1,000 in Vancouver and elsewhere.
Besides the cash offer from Pacific NorthWest LNG, the B.C. government is willing to transfer 2,200 hectares of Crown land, valued at $108-million and spread over the Prince Rupert harbour area and other property near Lax Kw'alaams. TransCanada Corp.'s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline plan is also under scrutiny by the First Nations group.
The band council said there needs to be better co-ordination among the provincial and federal governments, with the latter represented by the Prince Rupert Port Authority (PRPA). Lelu Island and nearby waters are under jurisdiction of the port authority.
"To date, it is the considered opinion of the Lax Kw'alaams that there has been indifference to the point of negligence or willful blindness, or both, by PRPA in respect" of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, according to the band council's statement.
Pacific NorthWest LNG filed its environmental impact statement in February, 2014. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency expressed concerns to the joint venture in May, 2014. Catherine Ponsford, the agency's project manager for the Pacific and Yukon region, emphasized the need for Pacific NorthWest LNG to take heed of what is currently the picturesque setting of Lelu Island. "The project would convert large parts of Lelu Island, an undeveloped area of 192 hectares, into an industrial site," she wrote in a five-page letter to Michael Lambert, Pacific NorthWest LNG's head of environmental and regulatory affairs.
Ms. Ponsford sent another letter to Mr. Lambert in February, noting that Pacific NorthWest LNG agreed to conduct "3-D sediment dispersion modelling" to study the complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place. Ten weeks after that letter, Pacific NorthWest LNG submitted a new study by engineering firm Stantec Inc., dated May 5, that argued the construction of a suspension bridge and trestle from Lelu Island to Chatham Sound would not have an adverse effect on salmon habitat in Flora Bank.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which began its review of Pacific NorthWest LNG in April, 2013, is expected to rule on the project by October.
"The significance of the Skeena River estuary to area First Nations cannot be overstated," the band council said. "Lax Kw'alaams has on staff a team of scientists directed to assess the environmental challenges posed by the existing design for movement of LNG from the terminal."