Environmentalists are sounding the alarm over a federal oversight agency's proposal to relax rules about underwater sound governing Woodfibre LNG.
Conservationists have also flagged proposed changes regarding water and sediment quality monitoring.
However, Woodfibre LNG maintains that these changes are meant to clarify its responsibilities and make the project feasible. The company says it will not affect its commitment to the environment.
Back in June 2022, Woodfibre submitted an application to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, or IAAC, to amend two conditions of the project's Decision Statement, which contains legally-binding requirements for the project.
The IAAC answers to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
A report from the IAAC says the first proposed change, dubbed Condition 3.8, involves a rule that would force Woodfibre to shut down marine construction activities any time a marine mammal, such as a seal, is detected within an impact area where underwater noise is expected to exceed 160 decibels. This is expected to be within 7,322 metres of any activity
Woodfibre's position, the report says, is that this would "lead to regular and prolonged full project shutdowns of pile installation associated with the construction of key marine project components. This would make construction neither technically nor economically feasible."
As a result, the company is proposing to instead create a pinniped — seal or sea lion — exclusion area of 125 metres from sources of underwater noise- producing activities, the report says.
As it is, pinnipeds and cetaceans — whales, dolphins and porpoises — are lumped in the same exclusion zone. This proposal would create different zones for these two categories of animals.
The IAAC says that Woodfibre is arguing that this amendment will not be detrimental or result in adverse effects on pinniped health or its population.
This reasoning is based on several factors, the agency said.
First, steller sea lion populations are stable and growing, while harbour seal populations remain stable in Howe Sound.
Second, pinnipeds appeared to be undisturbed by in-water construction activities on two other northern B.C. projects. They can also avoid underwater noise by raising their heads above water.
Third, similar mitigation measures for frequent pinniped presence were used for the LNG Canada facility and Rio Tinto Terminal A expansion project.
Finally, the report says, the pinniped injury threshold of 190 decibels is estimated to be 73 metres from the impact source. This distance is expected to be reduced with the implementation of underwater dampening, such as a bubble curtain placement around the pile-driving.
The IAAC report then concludes "the agency does not consider the proposed changes to Condition 3.8 as proposed by the proponent to increase the extent to which the effects of the project, as assessed during the environmental assessment, are adverse."
As a result, the IAAC is proposing an amendment to Condition 3.8 to include a clause saying that for pinnipeds, Woodfibre shall establish underwater noise boundaries where sound levels reach 190 decibels or at a distance of 125 metres, whichever is the greater distance.
A marine mammal observer is to watch the area and report the presence of pinnipeds in those areas. Construction activity would be shut down if the animals enter the boundaries.
Sound-dampening technology, among other things, should also be used.
Disruptive to wildlife?
Regarding the proposed amendment around underwater sound, conservation advocates such as the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative and My Sea to Sky say if this proposal is approved, it would be disruptive to wildlife.
Animals such as seals would be at risk of developing permanent hearing damage during the construction of the export facility, which will involve pile-driving, they say. The District has also expressed concerns about the proposed changes.
In a letter addressed to the IAAC and copied to District council, Ruth Simons, executive director of the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society, said, "This is not the time to be relaxing conditions on underwater noise."
She noted that Howe Sound is starting to recover as an ecosystem, and that disturbances to the pinniped population are contrary to the objectives of the biosphere.
Howe Sound was designated a UNESCO biosphere back in 2021 after extensive campaigning from conservationists.
"We cannot determine from your analysis the noise impacts on all marine life, including but not limited to pinnipeds, have been properly evaluated," wrote Simons. "Disturbance to food sources that seals and threatened species feed on could have longer-term impacts."
District of Squamish council positions
Simons' letter was discussed at a District council meeting on Dec. 20.
During that debate, council passed a motion in a 4-3 decision to send a letter to the IAAC, as well as a number of elected officials. This letter states that, based on the biosphere initiative's analysis, the municipality does not support Woodfibre LNG's request to alter conditions for the Decision Statement for the project.
Councillors Eric Andersen, John French and Andrew Hamilton voted against sending the letter.
Mayor Armand Hurford and councillors Lauren Greenlaw, Chris Pettingill and Jenna Stoner voted in favour of sending the letter.
"I don't think it makes sense to reduce conditions, especially for a project that's going to increase GHGs very significantly," said Pettingill, who proposed the motion. "This is a biosphere and we need to protect it."
On the other hand, there were differing views on council.
French noted the proposed amendment to the Decision Statement had been informed by input from agencies such as Environment and Climate Change Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO.
"This requested change by Woodfibre LNG is based on data," he said. "There's science behind the request."
What about Squamish Nation?
French also said there wasn't any indication of opposition from the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), which was key to him.
When asked about the proposed amendments, the Nation issued a written statement to The Squamish Chief on the matter.
"We have a relationship with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada as co-regulator of the Woodfibre LNG project," wrote Sxwíxwtn Wilson Williams
"Marine mammal safety is an important part of that role. While we are aware of the application to the IAAC around the project-specific condition of approval around pinnipeds, the decision lies with the agency. The Squamish Nation will continue to ensure Woodfibre LNG adheres to all Squamish Nation conditions of approval and anticipates federal agencies will do the same for their conditions. We are interested in the emerging science of acoustic impacts on seals and sea lions, and will co-operate with our co-regulator to make sure the best available science is reflected in the application decision."
SLRD weighs in
The letter from the biosphere society was also discussed at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, or SLRD, on Jan. 25.
The regional district board unanimously passed a motion similar to that of the District, stating that the SLRD supports the Howe Sound Region Biosphere Initiative's analysis and the SLRD does not support Woodfibre LNG's request to alter conditions for the Decision Statement for the project.
Local environmentalist group My Sea to Sky had a number of concerns regarding the proposed amendments regarding underwater sound regulations.
"Everything that lives underwater relies on sound to communicate, to find food, to escape predators, and to survive," wrote Tracey Saxby, executive director of the group.
"Changing the exclusion zone for sea lions and seals from 7,322 metres to just 125 metres would allow Woodfibre LNG to expose wildlife to noise louder than repeated shot-gun blasts (up to 190 decibels)."
Saxby noted that steller sea lions are listed as a species of special concern.
"Minister Guilbeault is the final decision-maker, and if he allows Woodfibre LNG to have their way, this could set a dangerous precedent for any project that finds itself looking to cut costs at the expense of the environment," said Saxby, mentioning the head of Environment and Climate Change of Canada.
"What is at stake is whether it's acceptable to put the environment in jeopardy because safeguarding conditions are not easy for a project to comply with. But if a project is not able to comply with its conditions, then it should not be able to continue; we should not be relaxing those conditions. We cannot sacrifice species at risk so a fossil fuel project can make a profit."
Not reducing commitments
In response to concerns regarding underwater noise, Woodfibre LNG issued a written statement to The Squamish Chief.
"Woodfibre LNG is not reducing its commitments to the overall general marine mammal exclusion zone," wrote spokesperson Jayne Czarnocki. "Instead, the IAAC filing now takes into account both decibel levels combined with exclusion zones, specific to different mammal groups."
Czarnocki said the original federal decision statement did not state the different requirements for marine mammals, and instead referenced a combined exclusion zone.
"The IAAC filing will in no way diminish WLNG's responsibility or commitment to protect marine mammals; instead, it acknowledges the differences between cetaceans and pinnipeds," she added.
Another condition that Woodfibre is asking the IAAC to amend revolves around water quality.
This stipulation, dubbed Condition 6.4, requires Woodfibre to monitor water quality and marine sediment quality using the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment's (CCME) Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life and Interim Sediment Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life as benchmarks.
Woodfibre is to "report any exceedances to the thresholds identified in the guidelines and implement measures to remedy those exceedances."
According to the IAAC report, the company believes this condition places too much responsibility on them.
By the IAAC's account, Woodfibre says the wording of this condition holds them "responsible for the water and sediment quality in all watercourses that flow through the certified project area, and for the marine environment in Howe Sound."
The company believes this is not technically or economically feasible, the report says.
As a result, Woodfibre is suggesting the language be altered to specify that the company is responsible only for the water and soil quality exceedances attributable to its project.
"In addition, the language should be clarified to specify only those exceedances associated with a risk to human health, and limit the monitoring to construction and operation," the report said, stating the company's request.
In response, the IAAC proposes to amend the condition to read that Woodfibre should "communicate any exceedance(s) of the guidelines attributable to the designated project to relevant government authorities and Aboriginal groups, and implement additional mitigation measures to remedy those exceedances to reduce the associated risk to human health."
Under this proposal, monitoring would take place during the construction and operation of the project. Currently, that is unspecified.
The Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative noted its opposition to this proposal as well in its letter to the IAAC.
"[Woodfibre] must be accountable for ensuring no pollutants enter the ocean resulting from any of the work required to support their commercial activity, including any toxic runoff from landfills following site remediation," wrote Ruth Simons of the society. "We do not support amendment to condition 6.4."
Environment and Climate Change Canada, or ECCC, also submitted a public comment regarding this condition, stating that the IAAC report made a mistake when summarizing the ECCC's position on the matter.
It highlighted the section of the agency's report that it stated was incorrect: "Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) advised the agency that the proposed changes to condition 6.4 to clarify exceedances attributable to the project are not expected to increase the extent to which the effects of the project, as assessed during the environmental assessment, are adverse."
The ECCC said that in fact it did not advise the agency that the proposed changes would not increase the extent of the effects.
Woodfibre's said proposed changes to this condition are about creating clarity.
"The proposed amendments to condition 6.4 allow for greater clarity and accountability relating to scope and ownership when it comes to environmental monitoring," wrote Woodfibre's Czarnocki.
"Woodfibre LNG remains committed to strict regulatory monitoring and compliance relating to water quality sampling."
In response to a request for comment, the IAAC issued a written statement to The Squamish Chief.
The statement noted that Woodfibre submitted an application in June 2022 to amend the legally-binding conditions imposed on its project by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
"After considering concerns raised by the proponent relating to the technical feasibility of several requirements, the agency is proposing changes to certain conditions listed in the Decision Statement for the project," reads the message from spokesperson Stéphane Perrault.
"This includes revising the underwater noise thresholds and exclusion boundaries for the protection of marine mammals during construction, and clarifying requirements for mitigating and monitoring the project's adverse effects on water quality. The agency conducted an analysis of the environmental effects associated with these proposed changes and concluded that the changes would not increase the extent to which the effects of the project, as assessed during the environmental assessment, are adverse because marine mammals and human health would remain protected."
A commenting period was held until Jan. 30 for these proposed changes.
As the period has ended, the agency will now consider comments received from all stakeholders when finalizing its recommendation to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change on potential changes to the conditions for the project.
***Updated Feb. 2 to include comment from Environment and Climate Change Canada.