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Search on for alternate LNG site near Prince Rupert

First Nation hints at 'exploratory work' away from fish habitat
Looking across Flora Bank at low tide to the Pacific Northwest LNG site on Lelu Island, in the Skeena River Estuary near Prince Rupert.

The Lax Kw'alaams First Nation appears to be taking steps to find a new site for the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal, one that would not affect the salmon-rearing habitat in the Skeena River estuary.

In several community votes earlier this year, the Lax Kw'alaams rejected a $1.15-billion benefits package offer from the company and the B.C. government over concerns the liquefied natural gas terminal on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert in northwest B.C. would harm young salmon that rear in eel grass beds on Flora Bank.

On Monday, in an "important" message to its members posted on its Facebook site, the First Nation said while the federal government has been a tremendous disappointment, the provincial government appeared to be making a concerted effort to understand "fully" the concerns of the Lax Kw'alaams, in particular as they relate to Flora Bank.

"A protocol has been established to do investigative drilling in aid of determining an alternative site, away from the Flora Bank, for the shipment of any LNG from Prince Rupert harbour," said the message. "That exploratory work is to commence soon."

It is not clear with whom the protocol agreement on investigative drilling was reached.

Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece and other community leaders could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Neither Pacific NorthWest LNG nor the B.C. Ministry of Natural Gas Development responded to requests from The Vancouver Sun to answer questions on whether they were involved with the investigation for an alternate site.

The $36-billion terminal, pipeline and northeast gas development project is led by Malaysian state-owned Petronas and is one of the leading proposals Christy Clark's Liberal government hopes will start a new natural gas export industry to Asia. Industry analysts say only one or two of 19 proposals have a chance of being built.

The move to find a new site, if successful, could remove a significant obstacle for the project, particularly as First Nations in British Columbia find themselves with an increasing say over natural resource projects from mounting court decisions.

In its message to its members on Monday, the Lax Kw'alaams added that technical advisers, including the fisheries team, were fully involved in the alternate site investigation process and were vigilantly considering all proposals and information.

"More importantly, any decision by band council in connection with a project at Lelu Island will require extensive community meetings, consultation and a referendum in which all eligible Lax Kw'alaams may vote by secret ballot to approve or reject such a project," said the message.

In the earlier community meetings, votes were held by show of hands. Members who lived outside of communities in northwest B.C. did not get a chance to vote.

If another site was chosen it would be certain to further delay a decision on the project by the company, originally expected to be reached at the end of last year.

Changing the site of the terminal would likely trigger additional reviews by the province and Ottawa.

British Columbia has already approved the Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal and its pipeline, but a decision from a federal review has been delayed because of concerns over the salmon habitat at Flora Bank.

The company has already changed its original plans - promising to build a 1.6-kilometre suspension bridge over the Flora Bank and move the berth for the LNG carriers farther from Lelu Island so that no dredging would be required.

However, that has not satisfied the Lax Kw'alaams.

In rejecting the benefits package, the First Nation noted a 1973 report from federal scientists said Flora Bank was prime salmon-rearing habitat that should be protected.

In a written statement it issued following the rejection three months ago, the Lax Kw'alaams said it was open to LNG development, but not close to Flora Bank.

At the same time as the investigation of an alternate site was revealed, some Lax Kw'alaams members were also preparing to travel to Lelu Island to stage a "peaceful occupation" of traditional territory held by chief Donny Wesley, or Sm'oogyet Yahaan.

A call went out on Facebook on Tuesday to join the occupation: "Bring your boat, bring yourself, bring your drum, support our salmon. There is a barge already anchored ready to drill."

In June, Pacific NorthWest LNG said the project made economic sense and had the support of the Petronas-led consortium's board of directors, but the go-ahead remains dependent on receiving regulatory approval from the federal government.

Project partners include Sinopec, JAPEX, Indian Oil Corporation and Petroleum-BRUNEI.


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