Sherritt International fined $1 million for coal mine spills in 2011 and 2012

Mining giant Sherritt International Corp. has pleaded guilty to three violations under the Fisheries Act for spills in 2011 and 2012 of potentially harmful wastewater into a tributary of the Erith River, part of the Athabasca River watershed.

Tests showed water flowing into Athabasca River watershed was lethal to fish

Wastewater from settling ponds at the Coal Valley mine south of Edson, Alta., was found by Environment Canada to be toxic to fish. (Westmoreland Coal Company )

Mining giant Sherritt International Corp. has pleaded guilty to three violations under the Fisheries Act for spills in 2011 and 2012 of potentially harmful wastewater into a tributary of the Erith River, part of the Athabasca River watershed.

The company was fined a total of $1,050,000, of which $990,000 will be paid to the Environmental Damages Fund, used for research and preservation of fish habitat.

"It's a deterrent for any corporation when you have over a $1 million fine," said Erin Eacott, counsel with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

Eacott said had the company been charged after penalties under the Fisheries Act were substantially increased, it would have faced a much stiffer penalty.

No 'slap on the wrist'

"This is a significant penalty," Sherritt lawyer Brad Gilmour told the court. "This is is not a slap on the wrist."

The violations occurred at the Coal Valley Mine, 90 kilometres south of Edson.

In an agreed statement of facts entered into court Tuesday, Sherritt admitted to depositing half a million litres of mine wastewater from settling ponds into the Erith River.  

The wastewater contained potentially toxic levels of the chemical flocculant which was added to the water to remove sediments before being discharged into the river system.

Enforcement officers from Environment and Climate Change Canada were alerted to a potential problem after a spill report from the mine Aug. 3, 2012.

Tests of the settling pond water showed all trout exposed to the water died within 72 hours. Following the analysis, an enforcement order was issued by Environment Canada to prevent additional deposits from entering the river system.

Further investigation involving search warrants and the seizure of thousands of documents from the mine revealed two previous releases in July 2011 from two settling ponds.

Analysis also determined the wastewater from those ponds contained high levels of chemical flocculant that was lethal to fish.

In those tests, all trout exposed to the wastewater from the ponds died within 24 or 72 hours.

Daniel Smith, Environment Canada operations manager,says he hopes the fine sends a the message to industry that care must be taken when releasing substances into fish-bearing waters. (CBC)

Daniel Smith, regional director with Environment Canada's enforcement directorate in Edmonton, said labs performed what's known as an "acute lethality" test, which indicated there were problems.

"It killed all fish within the test at less than 6.35 per cent [concentration], which means the water that was leaving the mine was very toxic to fish and would have had an impact on the environment,"Smith said.

"What we hope this does is send a significant message to the industry," he said. "Anyone operating near water has to take measures to prevent any release before it hits fish-bearing water."

Before 2013, according to the agreed statement of facts, Coal Valley Mine staff added the flocculant to ponds manually, and relied on "visual observation" to gauge how much substance to add.

Since then, an automated system has been adopted to accurately measure the amount added to the settling ponds. 

Plea averts long trial

A three-week trial was supposed to begin Monday, but was averted after the Crown agreed to drop six similar charges in favour of three guilty pleas, Eacott said.

"It would have been the battle of the experts," she said. "It would have been a fun trial to run in that respect, but it was quite contentious and vigorously contested by defence counsel until just recently."

Sherritt owned Coal Valley Mine from from 2001 until April 2014 when it was sold to the Westmoreland Coal Company and amalgamated into Prairie Mines and Royalty.

This spring, Prairie Mines was handed almost $4.5 million in federal and provincial penalties for a spill from the Obed Mountain mine tailings pond that fouled tributaries feeding the Athabasca River.

An estimated 670 million litres of waste water gushed out of a broken earth berm at the mine near Hinton, on Oct. 31, 2013.