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TransCanada Corp.'s $11-billion Energy East pipeline project has run into another stumbling block in Quebec as public opposition mounts over a possible threat to the endangered beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River.

The Calgary-based pipeline company is still awaiting provincial government permission to continue its exploratory and drilling work on a planned export terminal at Cacouna, a key calving site for the belugas, despite the lifting of a temporary court injunction on Oct. 15.

TransCanada had a work timetable it wanted to complete before the ice forms on the river.

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The company's goal was to return to work after it submitted to Quebec's environment ministry a revised plan for noise abatement and other measures to protect the belugas, but it is still waiting for the green light after having done so last Wednesday.

A Quebec Superior Court judge slapped the injunction on TransCanada last month after several Quebec-based environmental groups successfully argued that the ministry had granted it a certificate without properly considering the impact on the belugas that congregate in the area to nurse their newborn.

Oct. 15 is viewed as the end of the mother belugas' calving period. Ministry officials were not available to comment Sunday but the company said it had proactively increased the exclusion zone for marine mammals before receiving the notice of non-compliance and it had obtained all proper procedures in obtaining authorization .

The work permit expires at the end of November.

The Energy East project involves the conversion of a natural-gas pipeline, as well as construction of a new line through Quebec and New Brunswick, to carry 1.1 million barrels a day of Western Canadian crude to refineries and export facilities in the two provinces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other politicians have called the project a nation-builder. In a show of support for Energy East, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is scheduled to meet with business and political leaders in Alberta beginning Monday and also tour a TransCanada operations centre as well as visit the oil sands.

Meanwhile, Quebec environmental groups said that about 38,000 signatures have so far been collected on a petition urging Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to halt the Cacouna drilling permanently.

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The Cacouna project is "in the heart of the belugas' vital habitat," said Michel Bélanger, president of Nature Québec.

"This [project] could be fatal for them," he said, pointing out that the belugas' numbers have dwindled to about 880 today from about 10,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

"People are very concerned."

TransCanada should not be allowed to do any work on East Energy in the province, said Mr. Bélanger, until it has undergone a full and rigorous review by the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement, Quebec's environment regulation agency.

TransCanada is expected to file for federal regulatory approval later this month.

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