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Scientists urge federal environment minister to reject LNG report and save fish

VICTORIA – More than 130 scientists have signed a letter saying federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna should reject a “flawed” environmental draft report for a proposed $36-billion liquefied natural gas plant on British Columbia’s northwest coast.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency released a draft report last month, finding the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG project in the Lelu Island, Flora Bank area of the Skeena River estuary poses minimal risk to fish.

The federal government is expected to make its final decision this month on the agency’s project permit.

The scientists said in the letter to McKenna that the draft report “is scientifically flawed and represents an insufficient base for decision-making. We urge you to reject the CEAA draft report.”

However, B.C.’s Natural Gas Development Minister Rich Coleman said the scientists reached the wrong conclusion.

“To have a group of people write a letter and just say, ‘We disagree,’ I don’t think they’ve gone and done the work to quantify their opinion,” Coleman said. “Quite frankly, the only opinion that’s going to matter is the opinion of the federal scientists who they’ve hired, who worked with the project for a long time on the details.”

The letter identified five primary flaws in the draft report including misrepresenting the importance of fish, especially salmon, in the area, disregarding science not funded by the project proponent and assuming a lack of information equates to few risks.

“The CEAA draft report for the Pacific NorthWest LNG project is a symbol of what is wrong with environmental decision-making in Canada,” the letter said. “An obvious risk of a flawed assessment is that it will arrive at an incorrect conclusion.”

The letter also said industrial development proposed by the project is associated with lasting damage to the salmon population in the second-largest salmon-producing watershed in Canada.

Otto Langer, a former Department of Fisheries and Oceans habitat assessment expert, signed the letter to McKenna.

“A natural eel grass salmon habitat such as Flora Bank cannot survive if it is subjected to pile driving, dredging, lights, ship and dock noises, spills,” said Langer in a statement. “We must keep industry out of this area.”

Pacific Northwest LNG, backed by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, has proposed to build an LNG export terminal at Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert. It is billed as the largest private-sector investment in B.C.’s history and estimated to create 4,500 construction jobs.

The 257-page draft report said the project would likely harm harbour porpoises and contribute to climate change, but could be built and operated without causing major ecological damage.

A coalition of First Nations, environmentalists and Opposition New Democrats signed a declaration demanding a protection zone near the proposed project zone.

Some area hereditary First Nations chiefs said the project is a threat to a centuries-old salmon-fishing culture, but other elected chiefs said they were awaiting further scientific reports and rejecting the project as premature.

“This letter is not about being for or against LNG, the letter is about scientific integrity in decision-making,” said Jonathan Moore, a coastal science and management professor at Simon Fraser University.