The federal government has asked Woodfibre LNG to revisit the conclusions of its recent herring spawn surveys and the potential impacts of a proposed seawater cooling intake system that scientists have claimed could devastate Howe Sound's marine life.
As part of the company's plans for a $1.6-billion LNG facility southwest of downtown Squamish, proponents have proposed a marine intake pipe, commonly used at industrial plants for cooling, for a site just north of Mill Creek.
Local scientists and conservation groups have warned of the potential impact the cooling system could have on marine life, particularly for Howe Sound's vital herring population. Woodfibre has said the pipe would draw roughly 17,000 cubic metres of seawater an hour.
Between February and May the company commissioned Hemmera Envirochem to conduct several herring surveys at the project site, observing spawn on four of the five surveys.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) recommends that marine intake pipes be located at least two kilometres outside of documented herring spawning zones — guidelines that Woodfibre has not yet committed to following.
As mitigation measures, Hemmera recommended in its report last month that monitoring of the site be ongoing, and work be stopped and the DFO notified when herring spawn are observed in the area. It also recommended that any future planning for the project site include "components that are likely to promote herring productivity in the area," like making improvements to common herring habitat.
Earlier this month, the DFO asked Woodfibre to update its report's findings.
"It is (the Fisheries Protection Program's [FPP]) understanding that the proponent's conclusions of serious harm to fish and appropriateness of proposed mitigation measures were derived with a belief that herring spawn did not occur or was limited with the marine (project development area)," stated a May 6 letter to Amber Paulson, project assessment officer with the Environmental Assessment Office.
"FPP requests that the proponent update their conclusions of serious harm to fish resulting from the Seawater Cooling Intake System and appropriateness of mitigation measures taking into consideration discovered and potential herring spawn locations."
In an email to Pique, Woodfibre LNG's senior manager of corporate communications Jennifer Siddon underlined that, while the DFO's guidelines are "important decision making tools," they are flexible and not meant to be interpreted as strict regulations.
The lack of teeth in the DFO's guidelines is part of the problem, according to Stan Proboszcz, biologist with Propeller Strategy.
"If we have guidelines but no one needs to follow them, as it appears Woodfibre isn't, then what use are they?" he said. "The other thing is that Woodfibre has claimed that this is going to be a world-class, environmentally green project, and this is clear evidence that they're not following federal guidelines, and it's really just for show."
In her email, Siddon noted that the seawater cooling system will be "designed to minimize effects on the marine environment" and pointed to the efforts Woodfibre will take to mitigate harm on marine life.
"More than 2,200 truckloads of contaminated sediment and woodchips have already been removed from the foreshore of the site," she wrote. "In addition, Woodfibre LNG is committed to removing about 3,000 creosoted-coated piles from the foreshore, and will also create a green zone around Mill Creek, which runs through the middle of the project site. These measures will help create an ecologically functioning habitat for fish and marine plants as well as support the rehabilitation of Howe Sound."
To Proboszcz, however, the statement is distracting from the real matter at hand.
"It's kind of interesting because they're commenting on other aspects (of the project) and avoiding the fact that they're going to violate (federal) guidelines," he said.
"The big problem with that is, say they do enhance some of the habitat for fish, those fish are still going to end up being potentially sucked up into this intake."
Also of concern for Proboszcz is that the public has not had a chance to comment on the herring issue since the surveys were conducted after the public comment period closed in March.
"Citizens and experts didn't have this information," he said. "What they had was Woodfibre LNG's literature review info that stated the nearest herring spawning was 3.5 km away.
"If Woodfibre LNG truly cared about the health of Howe Sound, they would reboot the process and begin public consultations over again, integrating this new information."
The future of B.C.'s LNG industry was cast in doubt last week with the release of a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which found that Asian demand for the fuel product has dropped in the face of falling gas prices.
"Prospects for (Canadian) LNG projects have deteriorated and no plant is expected to be operational over the time horizon of this report," the IEA said in its five-year forecast for the natural gas market.
The current price of LNG in Japan is $7.12 US per British thermal unit, roughly half the price it was a year ago, posing a significant barrier to new LNG projects.
"New projects, however, will struggle to get off the ground at current prices," the report stated, with the IEA pointing to the risks associated with the more than a dozen LNG projects currently proposed for B.C.
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