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Lelu Island, site of an LNG export terminal proposed by Pacific NorthWest LNG. The group has offered $1-billion to the Lax Kw’alaams in exchange for their consent.

Brent Jang/The Globe and Mail

A liquefied natural gas venture, under fire from an aboriginal group, has developed scientific projections that conclude a massive B.C. LNG project won't harm fish as feared by the Lax Kw'alaams.

A new engineering study commissioned by Pacific NorthWest LNG asserts that construction of an export terminal near Port Edward, B.C., will have little to no impact on salmon stocks, contrary to the popular belief that an area called Flora Bank is crucial for fish habitat.

The LNG group led by Malaysia's Petronas is counting on federal environmental approval by this fall to provide momentum to the controversial project, which has offered $1-billion to the Lax Kw'alaams in exchange for their consent.

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The Lax Kw'alaams and environmentalists say Flora Bank, located between Lelu Island and Kitson Island in the estuary of the Skeena River, is in an ecologically sensitive area where juvenile salmon seek sanctuary in eelgrass to hide from predators. Critics fear that construction of a suspension bridge and trestle from Lelu Island to Chatham Sound would disturb the Flora Bank habitat that is considered important for the salmon to survive.

But the 3-D modelling study headed by biologist Mark Johannes concludes that an $11.4-billion LNG export terminal could be built in an environmentally responsible manner on Lelu Island, located across from the community of Port Edward on British Columbia's north coast.

"Flora Bank eelgrass is not considered highly productive habitat relative to other areas in Chatham Sound," according to the report by engineering firm Stantec Inc., filed last week to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) and obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The report argues that the seafood population won't be adversely affected: "Based on fish and fish habitat surveys – and fish, crab and shrimp distribution along the proposed marine terminal and trestle alignment – there is little or no expectation that proposed project infrastructure could have population-level effects on salmonids, herring, eulachon, crab, shrimp or forage fish."

Emotions ran high last week in Lax Kw'alaams and Prince Rupert during the first two of three rounds of voting on whether to support the LNG project. Eligible First Nations voters declined to accept a $1-billion cash offer over 40 years in exchange for aboriginal consent for the project.

"It's always a little bit of a bumpy road to get to a negotiated agreement, but I think we'll get there. I think we've proven that we can get there in some other previous, very difficult negotiations," B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday.

Industry observers say Pacific NorthWest LNG is counting on the environmental assessment agency to stick with science instead of being unduly influenced by the First Nation's emotional attachment to Flora Bank.

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"The agency is committed to completing a science-based federal environmental assessment of the project within the legislated timeline," the CEAA said in a statement. The agency is expected to rule on the Petronas-led venture by October.

Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposed suspension bridge over Flora Bank would extend southwest for 1.6 kilometres away from Lelu Island. That span would connect with a 1.1-kilometre-long trestle to a deep-berth location in Chatham Sound.

A report in January prepared for the Lax Kw'alaams by Patrick McLaren, president of SedTrend Analysis Ltd., raised environmental alarm bells. He warned that the trestle in particular would threaten to disrupt a complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place.

It will cost an estimated $36-billion to bring the energy project to fruition, including TransCanada Corp's $5-billion Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline proposal. A meeting for Lax Kw'alaams members in Vancouver on Tuesday night was expected to follow the trend of rejection of the offer from Pacific NorthWest LNG.

Pacific NorthWest LNG filed its environmental impact statement in February, 2014, and the federal regulator expressed concerns about the venture in May, 2014.

Catherine Ponsford, the assessment agency's project manager for the Pacific and Yukon region, said in February this year that Pacific NorthWest LNG agreed to conduct "3-D sediment dispersion modelling" to study Flora Bank.

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