Managers plead guilty in coal mine spill

A 21-year-old holding a high school diploma made decisions resulting in disaster on the Tulameen River

More than four years after the Tulameen River ran black with coal slurry, criminal charges in the spill were settled quietly last Thursday in Princeton court.

Blame for the 2013 Coalmont Energy Corporation spill was shouldered by two men.

Allan McGowan, the mine manager, was 65 when the spill occurred. A professional with decades of experience in mining, he had just started with the fledgling operation.

Rocky Leong, who was 21-years-old and possessed only a high school diploma, was second in command as the mine manager designate.

McGowan pleaded guilty Thursday to introducing waste into the environment causing pollution and Leong pleaded guilty to introducing business waste into the environment.

Charges against the now-defunct Coalmont Energy Corporation were stayed.

McGowan and Leong were each ordered to pay nearly $10,000 to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which will use the funds to support enhancement of the Tulameen and Similkameen River watersheds.

Crown attorney Joel Gold told the court the events of August 24, 2013 – when 60,000 liters of coal slurry were dumped into the Tulameen River “were the result of a perfect storm.”

“[It was] not following the legislative requirements…slow reaction time…fatigue, conflicting demands, production and cost pressures, inadequate training.”

Coalmont Energy Corporation was a closed mine, he explained, and had no permits to discharge substances into the environment.

The day of the spill a large cloth filter used in the mine’s water recycling process was disabled. McGowan – who mistakenly thought a new filter was being delivered soon – decided to flow slurry into three descending tailings ponds on the property as a temporary fix.

Later, when Leong was on site and the ponds reached capacity, he was advised by a visiting engineer and other workers that “something was wrong.”

They told him to shut down the mine, said Gold.

Instead Leong ordered a fourth pond dug and then made the decision to flow the slurry directly to a coal cake, hoping it would be absorbed.

The make-shift containment system failed, and the slurry poured into Collins Gulch and then to the river.

Gold said the damage might have been mitigated had McGowan acted sooner.

After receiving a report that black water was flowing through Collins Gulch he visited what he thought was the correct area and saw only clear running water. Later he was advised he had not inspected the actual gulch, and when he was directed to the proper location he identified the spill and halted operations.

McGowan’s defense lawyer E. Duncan said that while his client’s decisions were “certainly erroneous” he was operating in “good faith.”

He said McGowan was helpful during the initial stages of the investigation that involved several provincial agencies as well as Environment Canada.

“Despite being advised of his right to silence he took a leadership role,” said Duncan.

“He made statements that could be used against him. I tried to explain this to him and why it might make sense to ‘go mute’ and that didn’t matter to him. He did the right thing.”

Duncan told the court that McGowan is in ill health, and has been unable to find meaningful employment in the industry since the incident.

Attorney for Leong, A. MacKay, stressed to the court that her client was “wholly and profoundly unqualified to fill the role of mine manager designate that he was asked to fulfill…He had absolutely no prior mining experience.”

She underlined Leong’s lack of certification and education and said: “He didn’t even apply for the job.”

Despite initial concerns about the potential environmental effects of the spill, court heard extensive testing indicates there was either no or very limited impact on the Tulameen River and the habitats it provides for fish and wildlife.

Gold told the court that charges against Coalmont Energy Corporation were not being pursued as the company is bankrupt and a trial would be lengthy, costly and at best result in a “hollow victory.”

He said the crown did not seek “a significant individual penalty” for the two managers as “it would be unfair for the two who have taken responsibility for their part to be disproportionately punished.”

McGowan and Leong will each pay $9,885 to the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, a $100 fine, and a $15 victims’ surcharge.

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