By Alexandra Heck and Phil McLachlan
Free Press Staff
Teck Coal Ltd. is being fined $1.425 million after pleading guilty to releasing toxic amounts of nitrate and hydrogen sulfite into the Elk River in October 2014.
This is the second largest fine ever to be laid in B.C. related to Fisheries Act pollution. The largest occurred in February 2016 with Teck Metals in relation to pollution discharges from a smelter in Trail.
This fine totaled over $3 million, encompassing 10 different incidents.
In terms of a single incident charge, this recent fine to Teck Coal Ltd. is the largest ever in B.C. in relation to Fisheries Act pollution.
In the Fernie Courthouse on Thursday, representatives from the company awaited Judge L. Doerkson’s decision to fine the company, and demand the monies be paid to the Environmental Damages Fund.
Crown Prosecutor Alexander Clarkson advised that the judge propose funds to be allocated to habitat enhancement and restoration projects in the East Kootenays.
The court found that in October 2014, Teck Coal Ltd. breached section 36 of the Fisheries Act on three occasions, when their effluent treatment facility failed to keep toxic levels of nitrate, phosphorus, selenium and hydrogen sulfates from entering the Line Creek, subsequently killing over 74 fish.
“Teck is a good corporate character and considers how operations affect the environment,” said Judge Doerkson in his ruling, noting that it is impossible to expect Teck to be perfect.
He fined the company $475,000 each for the three counts for the offense, falling under section 36 of the Fisheries Act, totalling $1.425 million.
Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral that in concentrated amounts is toxic to small creatures, including fish. Strip mining exposes this mineral to the air, which is washed into water systems when it rains.
The company has a permit to discharge treated effluent into the Line Creek, however in the fall of 2014, there was a malfunction of the treatment system.
Deceased bull trout were sent to the University of Saskatchewan for lab testing, which determined that there was high levels of nitrates found in the fish.
Dead fish found in the ponds showed redness around their gills and eyes and water tests taken in between October 7 to 14 were found to be “acutely lethal,” said Clarkson.
He explained that during the incident, witnesses on the Line Creek site noticed a distinct change in odour being emitted from the treatment facility, as well as foam in the water.
At the time, Teck Coal’s operation was emitting approximately 4,000 cubic metres of effluent into the creek.
“From the outset we took full responsibility for this incident and recognize that we need to do better,” said Robin Sheremeta, Senior Vice President of Coal at Teck Coal Ltd in a press release issued after the hearing. “We are committed to working hard to continually improve our environmental performance and ensure the environment where we operate is protected.”
The company responsible for the treatment facility was CH2M, an engineering company out of Colorado, that specializes in wastewater treatment and has carried out a number of projects for removing selenium from water at mines in the US.
The Line Creek treatment facility was only the second plant in the world to be using Fluid Bed Reactor Technology to remove selenium from from the effluent before entering the creek.
On May 1, 2015, Teck Coal Ltd. discontinued their relationship with CH2M at the Line Creek site, constructed a new pond and reconfigured the treatment facility.
They spent over $4M to rectify the issues at the facility and changed their training policies for staff at the treatment site.
The crown asked the judge to consider culpability, prior records and Teck’s cooperation in making his decision.
Under the Fisheries Act, the minimum fine for the offense is $100,000, with a maximum set at $4 million.
“This case falls in the middle of the culpability spectrum,” he said, explaining that while the incident was not intentional, Teck could have acted more quickly in obtaining timely information on the dangers of the effluent flowing into the creek.
“Not only is the geography vulnerable,” he said, explaining that the bull trout, some of which were harmed in the incident exist in low numbers in that portion of the creek and as a result there is a year-round fishing ban on them. Of the 74 fish found dead, 52 of them being bull trout, which are listed as a species of special concern and 22 Weslo Cutthroat trout.
“It’s a particularly vulnerable time of year,” he said, because October, when the incident occurred is when the fish spawn in the area.
Teck Coal has no prior history of environmental offenses, and the Crown also noted that throughout the investigation, the company was highly cooperative with Environment Canada. At the time of the incident they immediately notified the Xtinaha Nation as well as the district of Sparwood, District of Elford, City of Fernie and the regional hunting and fishing organizations.
The Crown also made note of the sensitivity of the time and place.
“What is really mitigating here…is the responsibility taken by Teck,” said the Crown. “They’ve taken responsibility for their actions and improved their facilities.”
By pleading guilty, Teck negated what the Crown says would have been a lengthy trial, which would have required a number of experts.
“I think the judge recognized that there was both significant harm and a valuable fishery resource that was damaged as a result of the incident,” said Darin Conroy, an enforcement officer with Environment Canada.
“The investigation discovered a number of errors,” he said, both in the operation and oversight of the facility. “Teck has addressed both those concerns.”
Going forward, Conroy says there is a “greater awareness of where the effluent goes and its impact on the creek,” resulting in the creation of a buffer pond which holds the effluent for 24 hours before it enters Line Creek.
“There’s a number of positive outcomes,” said Conroy.
Teck Coal Ltd. has until November 5 to pay the fine.