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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says she wants to give Pacific NorthWest LNG more time to clarify its pollution-reduction and construction plans.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The lengthy environmental review of Pacific NorthWest LNG is boiling down to federal regulators studying the risk that a sandy area for juvenile salmon habitat will suffer gradual erosion and disappear in a scenario dubbed the Great Escape.

A report in early 2015 prepared for the aboriginal-backed Skeena Fisheries Commission by Patrick McLaren, president of SedTrend Analysis Ltd., raised environmental alarm bells about the prospect of Flora Bank vanishing if the B.C. terminal is built to export liquefied natural gas.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has asked Pacific NorthWest LNG to address concerns about the project's impact on Flora Bank. Visible at low tide, Flora Bank contains eelgrass that nurtures juvenile salmon in the Skeena River estuary near Prince Rupert.

In its draft report last month, CEAA said the project would likely harm harbour porpoises and contribute to climate change, but the export terminal could be built and operated without causing major ecological damage to Flora Bank.

But after a 30-day comment period that ended March 11, the regulator has come up with a wide range of new queries for Pacific NorthWest LNG, a consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has agreed to CEAA's request for a three-month extension to the review, which began in April, 2013.

"I am providing the proponent an additional opportunity to clarify its mitigation plan, clarify its concerns on the current conditions, and ensure the risks posed are minimized before I present this to cabinet," Ms. McKenna said in a statement on Monday.

Industry observers say even if Pacific NorthWest LNG is able to supply answers within a month or so, CEAA has 15 days to consider the replies. That means the regulatory clock could restart mid-May, and give the federal cabinet until mid-August to ponder whether to grant approval, barring any further delays.

"Senior officials from B.C. are in Ottawa right now, working with the federal government to overcome this delay and reach a positive final outcome that helps our economy, protects the environment and respects First Nations," B.C. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman said in a Facebook post on Monday.

Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposed suspension bridge over the northwest fringe of Flora Bank would extend southwest for 1.6 kilometres away from the proposed site for the $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island. That span would connect with a 1.1-kilometre-long trestle to a deep-berth location for LNG tankers on Agnew Bank.

Dr. McLaren warns that the trestle in particular would threaten to disrupt a complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place.

"It is predicted that sand will be lost from Flora Bank (the Great Escape) following construction of the trestle portion of the terminal jetty," he wrote in a paper published this year in the Journal of Coastal Research.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, also known as DFO because it was formerly the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said in a March 15 letter to CEAA that the Petronas-led group needs to "undertake a systematic observation program of the currents in the vicinity of the proposed structures."

Natural Resources Canada, however, is skeptical about Dr. McLaren's research. "In terms of Flora Bank stability, NRCan considers McLaren's conclusion of the 'Great Escape' to be a hypothetical concept," Natural Resources Canada said in a letter last week to CEAA. "Results from the proponent's November 2015 modelling update report suggest that the equilibrium on Flora Bank is relatively stable."

DFO said two months ago that that the trestle pilings will be small and "can be expected to have a very limited impact on Flora Bank," but the department is now advising CEAA to seek more information from Pacific NorthWest LNG: "DFO recommends the the proponent provide additional details on the marine terminal, in particular the berths, and their piling structure."