Woodfibre LNG 20230705

Squamish environmental group challenges Woodfibre LNG, FortisBC wastewater permits

The BC Energy Regulator has issued a permit for Woodfibre LNG to release more than 1,200 litres of contaminated wastewater daily into the Howe Sound fjord

An environmental organization is challenging a permit issued by the BC Energy Regulator allowing the Woodfibre LNG project to release contaminated water into the Howe Sound fjord on the West Coast of British Columbia.

The permit authorizes the liquefied natural gas facility to release up to 1,220 cubic metres of wastewater in a single day from its construction site in Squamish, near Vancouver. That’s roughly half of what an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds. While the permit requires Woodfibre LNG to treat the polluted water, the company is not required to remove all contaminants of concern, such as copper and lead, before releasing it into the fjord.

My Sea to Sky, an environmental organization focused on the restoration and conservation of Howe Sound, recently filed a notice of appeal with the B.C. environmental appeal board, seeking to have the permit cancelled over concerns wastewater from the site will put an ecosystem still recovering from historic industrial contamination at further risk. The appeal board can confirm, vary or overturn decisions related to the environment or stewardship and use of natural resources.

The Squamish-based group is also seeking to cancel a wastewater permit the regulator issued to FortisBC, allowing the natural gas utility to release effluent from the construction of a tunnel beneath the Skwelwil’em Squamish Estuary. The tunnel will carry the final leg of a natural gas pipeline to the Woodfibre LNG plant, majority owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto’s Pacific Energy Company.

Squamish: A scene overlooking the Squamish Estuary in Squamish, BC.
FortisBC is constructing a tunnel below the Squamish estuary to carry the last leg of the Eagle Mountain pipeline to the Woodfibre LNG facility, majority owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

“There are very significant concerns about the toxic water pollution and the cumulative impacts of that toxic water pollution in the Squamish River and Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound and the harms that that is going to have on these very sensitive and recovering ecosystems,” Tracey Saxby, executive director of My Sea to Sky, told The Narwhal in an interview.

The Narwhal has not reviewed either notice of appeal.

A spokesperson for the BC Energy Regulator said in a statement the regulator “is satisfied the requirements contained in the [Woodfibre LNG] permit are appropriate and sufficient to mitigate risks to the environment.”

The BC Energy Regulator is responsible for regulating oil and gas projects across the province. The Narwhal’s previous reporting on the Coastal Gaslink project in northern B.C. raised concerns about the regulator’s ability to enforce environmental laws and regulations, based on a review of government records. 

“This is a track record that’s extremely concerning, particularly because the BC Energy Regulator is responsible for oversight of many of the permits that are required by Woodfibre LNG and FortisBC,” Saxby said.

Howe Sound recognized globally for biodiversity

Howe Sound — called Átl’ḵa7tsem in the Squamish language — is rich in biodiversity and home to rare glass sponge reefs and numerous other species. The region was designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere in 2021 in recognition of its ecological importance. UNESCO biospheres around the world are meant to serve as learning spaces and models for sustainable development.

The sound has undergone a “spectacular” recovery in recent decades after suffering immensely from the combined impact of industrial logging, pulp mills and mining, according to the draft management plan for the biosphere prepared by the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society.

A map showing the location of the Woodfibre LNG facility about 45 kilometres northwest of Vancouver and the route of the Eagle Mountain pipeline from Coquitlam to Woodfibre LNG
FortisBC is adding about 50 kilometres to its pipeline network between Coquitlam and Squamish to service the Woodfibre LNG project. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

“By the 1970s, the cumulative effects on water quality, marine biota and habitat were devastating to the marine ecosystem; by the early 1980s, much of Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound was thought to be dead or dying,” the draft management plan reads.

My Sea to Sky worries Woodfibre LNG and the associated pipeline project will undermine the recovery of the fjord.

“We’re seeing the herring come back, the salmon come back, the seals and sea lions and dolphins come back and the whales come back for the first time in over 100 years. All of that is at risk from this project,” Saxby said.

My Sea to Sky founded over Woodfibre LNG concerns

Work began last fall on the Woodfibre LNG project, which holds environmental approvals from Sḵwx̱wu7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) as well as the provincial and federal governments.

The facility is being built on the site of an old pulp and paper mill roughly 45 kilometres northwest of Vancouver and is expected to be largely completed by 2027. The company says the plant will produce 2.1 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas each year, considerably less than either the LNG Canada project or planned Ksi Lisims project in northern B.C.

Saxby said My Sea to Sky was founded in response to community concerns about the Woodfibre LNG project. “For the last 10 years, we’ve been doing everything we can to hold the company accountable, to hold them to really high standards and to call for them to do everything that they can possible to protect the environment, to protect the community and to minimize harm,” she said.

a landscape of pipes and oil and gas infrastructure seen from the air
B.C.’s northeast is poised for a fracking boom to supply new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export projects, including Woodfibre LNG. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Climate change is among the group’s primary concerns. “We’re developing new fossil fuel infrastructure in a climate emergency and that doesn’t make sense,” Saxby said.

Woodfibre LNG notes on its website that it plans to use hydropower to run its liquefaction plant and aims to keep emissions from its facility among the lowest in the sector. At the same time, the company echoes the industry’s standard — and controversial — refrain that LNG could reduce global emissions by replacing coal in places where it is still burned to produce electricity. Critics say there are no guarantees LNG will replace coal and it could delay the transition to renewable energy.

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To meet Woodfibre LNG’s demand for natural gas, FortisBC is adding 50 kilometres to its pipeline network between Coquitlam and Squamish. The last leg of the Eagle Mountain pipeline to the liquefaction plant will run through a tunnel set to be constructed beneath the Squamish estuary.

Group fears Woodfibre LNG wastewater could undermine Howe Sound recovery

Woodfibre LNG’s wastewater authorization allows the company to release effluent clouded by tiny particles and contaminated by copper, lead, vanadium and zinc into Howe Sound. The company began discharging wastewater from the site in mid-April and expects to continue doing so until the end of 2027.

My Sea to Sky commissioned Vicki Marlatt, an associate professor of environmental toxicology at Simon Fraser University, to review Woodfibre LNG’s application for a wastewater permit.

“Howe Sound is a prime example of an aquatic ecosystem with documented historical pollution, and ongoing current point source pollution that has shown considerable recovery in the last two decades,” Marlatt wrote. “However, adding another point source of non-degradable and persistent toxic pollutants will hamper the recovery of this aquatic ecosystem to some unknown geographic extent.”

Marlatt made several recommendations for stronger environmental measures, but Saxby said the BC Energy Regulator did not include these in Woodfibre LNG’s permit. 

A coyote peers out of the darkness through out of focus grass in the Squamish estuary

Woodfibre LNG did not provide a response to emailed questions from The Narwhal by publication.

Lannea Parfitt, a spokesperson for the BC Energy Regulator, said the regulator and “subject matter experts thoroughly reviewed and considered submissions made by Dr. Marlatt.”

“In considering public comments received, including those by Dr. Marlatt, the decision-maker was satisfied the conditions contained in the permit were sufficiently protective of the environment and aligned with the legislative framework in place,” Parfitt said in an emailed statement to The Narwhal.

She noted the appeal proceedings are in the early stages and the regulator’s “position is that the permit was appropriately issued and aligns with legal and regulatory requirements.”

In a statement to The Narwhal, Sḵwx̱wu7mesh Úxwumixw councillor and spokesperson Sxwixwtn, Wilson Williams, said “Sḵwx̱wú7mesh People have always cared for and stewarded their lands and waters, and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw government takes its responsibility to regulate and monitor industrial and construction activities that occur on its lands and waters very seriously.” 

He noted the nation “has a regulatory role on this project and carried out several years of technical review on waste discharge authorizations and water management plans related to these projects.”

“Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw continues to mitigate potential risks to Howe Sound and Skwelwilem by conducting ongoing monitoring on site to verify compliance,” the statement said. “We maintain oversight on these projects through a number of mechanisms including Indigenous monitors and qualified environmental professionals.” 

According to the nation’s May 2024 project update, Indigenous monitors have also “been keeping an eye on numerous frog, salamander, snake and lizard recoveries during excavations, working alongside biologists to ensure proper procedures are followed to protect wildlife on site during construction.”

Concerns raised over public engagement process for wastewater permits

My Sea to Sky is also seeking to overturn FortisBC’s wastewater permit, issued by the BC Energy Regulator in March.

“What we want is for the BC Energy Regulator to hold FortisBC to the highest standards,” Saxby said.

The permit allows FortisBC to discharge effluent on both ends of tunnel construction beneath the Squamish estuary.

The company can discharge up to 515 cubic metres per day of wastewater from one site into the Squamish River, which flows into Howe Sound, as well as 1,500 cubic metres per day of wastewater from the Woodfibre LNG site. The permit also allows the company to discharge 2,700 cubic metres of wastewater during testing to assess pipeline integrity. 

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FortisBC began discharging wastewater from the site near the Squamish River in April, a spokesperson for the utility said in a statement to The Narwhal. The company expects to begin discharging wastewater from the Woodfibre LNG site in early June once a treatment plant has been commissioned, the spokesperson said.

“FortisBC and its contractor have engaged experts to create a robust water treatment system, and testing program, to ensure any wastewater is clean before it is released,” the statement said. 

“The wastewater is treated and tested in accordance with our authorization from the BC Energy Regulator,” the statement said, adding the treated water will meet B.C. water quality guidelines before being discharged from either site, in accordance with its permit.

The spokesperson added that “as an added measure, there is an automated system in place designed to stop the flow of water the moment any irregularity is detected. Should this be the case, the water is then cycled back through the system until it is fully compliant with the B.C. water quality guidelines.”

Yellow loaders and dump trucks are seen at the Woodfibre LNG site with mountains in the background
Woodfibre LNG is being built on the site of an old pulp and paper mill, roughly 45 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. The facility is expected to be largely completed by 2027. Photo: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

My Sea to Sky previously filed notices of appeal over two temporary wastewater approvals issued to FortisBC after the environmental group raised concerns about insufficient public engagement, Saxby said.

According to the BC Energy Regulator, FortisBC submitted preliminary applications for its wastewater authorizations in October 2019 and published the required public notices in October 2020.

A spokesperson for FortisBC said the company conducted this initial engagement in 2020 largely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Last August, the regulator directed FortisBC to complete additional consultations, including by publishing updated public notices, Parfitt said in a statement. The following month, the regulator issued FortisBC the temporary wastewater approvals after determining there had been enough consultation to meet the requirements for approvals. While consultation requirements for permits are prescribed by regulations, consultation requirements for temporary approvals are subject to the discretion of the regulator

FortisBC conducted the additional consultation, as directed by the regulator, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 30 last year, according to a statement from the company. The consultation included publishing an updated public notice of the wastewater application, inviting anyone affected by the proposed discharge to submit information to the BC Energy Regulator.

“The BC Energy Regulator was essentially enabling FortisBC to meet its construction timelines,” Saxby said.

When the company’s wastewater permit was issued earlier this year, My Sea to Sky’s appeal of the temporary approval was rendered moot, Saxby said.

Saxby said My Sea to Sky is pushing forward with its current challenges in an effort to ensure the regulator holds Woodfibre LNG and FortisBC to the highest environmental standards, she said.

“All of the work that has been done to clean up Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound, to restore … the very rare and sensitive ecosystems in the sound, we’re concerned that all of that is going to be put at risk,” she said.

Updated on May 31, 2024, at 2:42 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to add comments from Sḵwx̱wu7mesh Úxwumixw that were received following publication.

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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