The Lax Kw'alaams First Nation is seeking aboriginal title to Lelu Island and Flora Bank, creating a legal obstacle for a Malaysian-led consortium that wants to build an $11.4-billion terminal to export liquefied natural gas from British Columbia.
The aboriginal group will file a notice of civil claim to launch the legal action next week in the B.C. Supreme Court, Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece said in an interview on Friday.
Pacific NorthWest LNG, led by Malaysia's Petronas, is proposing to construct an LNG export terminal on Lelu Island, and also build a suspension bridge and jetty to a dock for Asia-bound tankers. Pacific NorthWest LNG has offered assurances that the design of marine infrastructure will not harm the environment.
The Lax Kw'alaams say there would be environmental damage because Flora Bank contains juvenile salmon habitat in eelgrass located next to Lelu Island in the Skeena River estuary.
"We want to protect crucial salmon habitat, protect our food security and ensure that governments and industry are obligated to seek our consent," Mr. Reece said. "If we obtain title, we will own Lelu Island and Flora Bank."
The area is part of the traditional territory of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams, and Mr. Reece believes that gaining aboriginal title will provide the First Nation with an effective veto over specific aspects of Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposal.
Several Lax Kw'alaams hereditary chiefs are opposed to Lelu Island for the liquefaction terminal, but some members say they would be open to the project if the trajectory of the bridge and jetty could be altered to place the dock away from Flora Bank.
"B.C. Supreme Court has jurisdiction over aboriginal title," said Greg McDade, a lawyer who represents the Lax Kw'alaams. He said defendants in the legal action will be named next week, but they are expected to include the B.C. and federal governments, the Prince Rupert Port Authority and Pacific NorthWest LNG.
The B.C. government said it respects the right of the Lax Kw'alaams to seek title, while the port authority said it is examining the implications of the legal challenge and noted that consultations are continuing with First Nations in the Prince Rupert region. "At this time, Pacific NorthWest LNG has not received federal environmental authorizations or permission from the Prince Rupert Port Authority to proceed with construction work on the site," the port said in a statement late Friday.
Five Tsimshian First Nations, including the Lax Kw'alaams, were consulted last year during a provincial environmental review. A federal assessment continues.
Two Tsimshian groups, the Metlakatla and the Kitselas, signed impact benefit agreements with Pacific NorthWest LNG in December. "Sadly, it seems that other Tsimshian communities chose to accept agreements with PNW, both prior to full scientific evaluation of the proposed facility and in conflict with the Lax Kw'alaams rights and interests," the Lax Kw'alaams Band Council said in a newsletter to its members.
The Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala have not announced their decisions on whether to support the Petronas-led venture.
There are 20 B.C. LNG proposals, although fierce global competition means that only a handful stand a chance of launching, industry experts say.
In voting in May, members of Lax Kw'alaams overwhelmingly rejected Pacific NorthWest LNG's $1-billion offer over 40 years.