Opponents of a massive liquefied natural gas project proposed for the north coast of B.C. have dug up a scientific report that band members were never shown.
In January of this year the Lax Kw’alaams Band signed an impact benefit agreement worth approximately $1 billion over 40 years in exchange for support for the $36 billion Pacific Northwest LNG project. But documents filed in federal court last month show the band council suppressed scientific research it had commissioned when the research report did not support the band’s position on the project. Members of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe, who filed the documents, are also arguing the band has no authority to approve the project.
“I don’t believe that they’re very ethical with the way that they’re doing things,” Murray Smith, a spokesperson for the Gitwilgyoots, tells me. “Why won’t [they] show us [the report]? Because it would work against them.”
The Gitwilgyoots launched their court challenge last October to have the federal government’s approval of the LNG facility overturned. Then in March, the Lax Kw’alaams Band filed a response to have the tribe’s challenge overturned.
Pacific Northwest LNG has been controversial because of its proposed location on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert. The island sits next to a sandbar called Flora Bank, which contains tall eelgrass that protects juvenile salmon as they adjust from the fresh water of the Skeena River to the salt water of the Pacific Ocean. Opponents of the project fear it will cause devastating impacts to the nursing grounds of millions of salmon and other species.
The report suppressed by the Lax Kw’alaams Band says the location of the project is a key concern. It was written by Asit Mazumder, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria. According to court documents, Mazumder was contracted by the band in the spring of last year to conduct an independent review of the project’s risk to fish and fish habitat in the Skeena River estuary.
Mazumder has not responded to requests for comment. But his report concluded that the research paid for by Pacific Northwest LNG, which informed the federal government leading up to Ottawa’s approval of the project, was “inconsistent.” It said the company’s modelling assumptions and lack of baseline data “make it difficult to conclude the project is at a low risk of significantly impacting Flora Bank.”
Mazumder wrote that the purpose of his report was to help Lax Kw’alaams band members “come to an informed judgement as to the likely safety of the project.” Lax Kw’alaams Mayor John Helin did not respond to requests for comment, but on April 21st he testified in a cross-examination that he didn’t share Mazumder’s report with the community. “I felt the road that he was going down was not an objective or independent review of all the necessary information that was out there,” Helin testified.
“It was an extremely sad experience for the scientists”
Professor Mazumder’s was not the only science to be suppressed in the months leading up to the approval of the project. Geologist Patrick McLaren is President of SedTrend, an independent consulting firm specializing in sediment trend analysis. McLaren was hired by the Lax Kw’alaams Band in 2015 to evaluate the environmental effects of terminal development over Flora Bank.
His research concluded plans for development would have a disruptive effect on Flora Bank, and that the sediments there are ancient and irreplaceable. Then last September, just weeks before the federal government approved Pacific Northwest LNG, McLaren was served a cease and desist letter from the band warning him to stop “making references to any research, information, or other matters relating to our about your work with the Lax Kw’alaams Band.
“All of a sudden Dr. McLaren’s analysis disappeared. They never showed it again,” Smith recalls.
The letter came after McLaren wrote a memo to band members last July summarizing his concerns. This memo was read out at a community meeting in which members accused the band of spreading misinformation. McLaren says he was asked by concerned band members to write the memo, and that he was not allowed to attend the community meeting himself.
“It was an extremely sad experience for the scientists. I think we were all very distressed,” McLaren tells me in a recent interview.
The band’s letter called McLaren’s memo to band members “egregious” because it “appears to be clearly aimed at swaying the membership’s opinion.” The letter also accused McLaren of breaching his confidentiality provision in his contract with the band by writing the memo. McLaren argues he could speak out because his research was made public when it was submitted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
“All the science that had been done had been published in international literature with people that have got nothing to do with Lax Kw’alaams, nothing to do with Flora Bank, only to do with assessing whether the scientific method and the results were reasonable. And if they weren’t, there wouldn’t have been [any] hope of having that published,” says McLaren.
The letter warned McLaren not to share or refer to any of his previous work done for the band publicly, adding that if he did, the band would take steps against him.
Battle over Lelu Island continues
Mazumder’s report and the letter to McLaren were submitted as evidence in the ongoing legal battle to stop Pacific Northwest LNG. The submissions on behalf of the hereditary leaders of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe accuse the Lax Kwa’laams Band of “producing decision-based evidence rather than evidence-based decisions.”
The Gitwilgyoots are attempting to have the federal government’s approval of the project overturned, on the claim that the tribe and its hereditary leaders were not adequately consulted. The tribe claims Lelu Island and the surrounding area as its traditional territory.
But the Lax Kw’alaams Band also claims jurisdiction over Lelu Island and is attempting to have the tribe’s court challenge dismissed. The band is arguing that the tribe, which represents the hereditary governance system of the Lax Kw’alaams and broader Coast Tsimshian people, is not a legal entity and therefore did not need to be consulted.
The outcome of the case could have broad implications for the question of who can speak for First Nations: hereditary chiefs or the elected council of federally administered Indian Act bands.
The two sides return to federal court June 7 and 8 in Vancouver.