Can a liquefied natural gas export facility be built in the heart of the Skeena River estuary without seriously harming the second-largest wild salmon run in Canada?
A growing body of science — from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Simon Fraser University, the Skeena Fisheries Commission, and others — suggests that industrial port development on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert is likely to damage Flora Bank, a shallow eelgrass bed next to Lelu that rears 300 million juvenile salmon every year as they graduate from fresh to salt water. The Skeena salmon fishery generates in excess of $110 million annually.
The only science that claims that the Pacific NorthWest LNG facility proposed for Lelu Island isn’t likely to significantly harm salmon is from the company proposing the project, and it is disturbingly problematic.
A submission to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency by consulting firm Stantec, working for Pacific NorthWest, included no field data on fish, yet inexplicably concluded that “salmon do not use Flora Bank eelgrass habitat for nursery habitat or other life dependent processes.” When asked about the baffling report, an anonymous Stantec employee told a news reporter that, “Internally, when it came out, there were quite a lot of people in our fisheries and marine group who were very, very unhappy with the report and could not believe that it had been produced.”
Similarly unsatisfactory, Pacific NorthWest’s 3D modelling of potential impacts was rejected by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) based on “numerous and significant deficiencies and errors in the modelling procedures, input data, and assumptions.”
In light of these problems, scientists from Simon Fraser University and the Skeena Fisheries Commission recently concluded that the Pacific NorthWest LNG design “disregards science” and “poses significant and unacceptable risks to Skeena salmon and their fisheries.” These comments were based on work the researchers published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science. If there ever was a gold-standard of scientific credibility, this is it.
In contrast, Pacific NorthWest is on their fourth try to provide credible science. Never mind publication, the company’s application to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has been rejected three times by government scientists at DFO and Natural Resources Canada. Each time, the company has been asked to provide trustworthy information on potential impacts on fish. Each time, they have come up short.
Will Pacific NorthWest’s latest science, submitted on Nov. 10, fare any better? Not likely.
One glaring concern is that Pacific NorthWest is overlooking key evidence that their LNG terminal may cause the vital Flora Bank salmon habitat to be demolished by erosion.
Patrick McLaren, one of the world’s leading geologists on sediment transport by water, has discovered that Flora Bank is a geological anomaly found nowhere else in B.C. It is relic sand from the last ice age, held in place by a delicate balance of opposing tidal, wave, and river currents. McLaren concludes, in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, that building the LNG supertanker trestle would likely disrupt this balance, and cause the bank and the eelgrass to be lost to deep water by erosion. The result? The critical salmon habitat would be eliminated.
Yet, Pacific NorthWest is relying on a 3D computer model to try to show that the project will not erode Flora Bank. In response to DFO feedback, Pacific NorthWest updated their modelling on Nov. 10, yet it still has problems. The key prediction of the new 3D model — that currents on top of Flora Bank are weak — is incompatible with the empirical observation that there are sand waves on Flora Bank that only form under strong currents. Thus, the 3D modelling must still be deficient and therefore cannot be relied on for accurate predictions. If the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency continues to hold the company accountable, this submission too will be rejected.
Governments have known the significance of Flora Bank, one of the largest eelgrass beds in B.C., for over 40 years. In 1973, a report by DFO found that Flora Bank is “of high biological significance as a fish (especially juvenile salmon) rearing habitat,” and advised that “construction of a superport at the Kitson Island — Flora Bank site would destroy much of this critical salmon habitat.”
But the B.C. government’s gold-rush approach to LNG development has welcomed Petronas, a company notorious internationally for its “catastrophic” safety issues and financial scandals, to disregard established science and set up shop on Lelu Island.
Politicians and regulators should not let Pacific NorthWest LNG, led by Petronas, muddy the waters with faulty science that jeopardizes one of the most prolific wild salmon runs in the world.
The LNG plant on Lelu Island should be rejected.
Greg Horne is the energy coordinator for the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, which is a participant in the Canadian Environmental Assessment of the Pacific NorthWest LNG proposal.