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Clean air activist Gordon Dalzell suspects Irving Oil has plans for a bitumen tank farm. (CBC)

A Saint John environmentalist is worried about Irving Oil Ltd.'s plan for thousands of acres of land in east Saint John.

Clean air activist Gordon Dalzell suspects at least some of the estimated 4,000 acres could be used to build a marine terminal if TransCanada Corp.'s west-east pipeline project goes ahead.

It could eventually host a tank farm for western bitumen on its way for export, but he's most worried it will become home to an upgrader.

"I'd be quite concerned about that if they ever were to build one of these cokers, upgraders on the existing oil refinery property, it would be just disastrous from an air quality environmental perspective. It's going to be bad enough if they build it out in Canaport," he said.

Dalzell says there could even be plastics or chemical plants in the area should a shale gas industry ever get off the ground in New Brunswick.

Irving acquired the land during a buying spree a few years ago when it planned to build a second oil refinery with international oil giant BP.

Those plans were shelved in 2009, but Irving had held onto almost all of the land and earlier this year, 92 of the properties were quietly transferred to a numbered company that has three members of Irving's leadership team as its directors.

Irving has not said why it still needs so much land in the area.

Irving has millions of dollars tied up in the land, but the property tax implications are minimal. A 60-hectare piece costs less than $2,000, while he bill on a four-hectare parcel is just $12.

Pipeline still needs approval

Earlier this month, TransCanada Corp. announced it plans to move forward with its proposed Energy East Pipeline project.

The pipeline proposal, which still needs regulatory approval, would send 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from Western Canada to refineries and export terminals in Eastern Canada.

TransCanada is proposing to convert roughly 3,000 kilometres of natural gas pipeline on its existing Canadian Mainline route so it can carry crude oil.

The company would also construct 1,400 kilometres of new pipeline to carry crude oil into Saint John, where it will end at the Canaport LNG terminal.

The Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John is the largest in Canada and can process 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Saint John also has a deep-water port and a liquefied natural gas facility.

TransCanada and Irving Oil Ltd. have also formed a joint venture to build and operate a new $300-million deep water marine terminal, according to the corporate statement.

Design work on the marine terminal, which will be located adjacent to Irving Oil's existing import terminal, is expected to begin in 2015.

TransCanada said it would start seeking regulatory approvals on the pipeline in 2014 and the oil could start flowing to Eastern Canada by late 2017.

Irving Oil had partnered with BP to build the $8-billion project, which is known as Eider Rock, and construction was supposed to start in 2011. At its peak, the refinery project was to create 5,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs.

But an 18-month study conducted by Irving Oil and BP concluded the project was not viable during the economic downturn and the softening demand for petroleum products.