Irving Pulp and Paper pleads guilty to pollution charges, faces $3.5M penalty

Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. has pleaded guilty to three charges under the federal Fisheries Act related to numerous "significant" instances of effluent discharges from its pulp mill in west Saint John into the St. John River over a two-year period.

Judge reserves decision on joint recommendation until Nov. 5

Irving Pulp and Paper vice-president Mark Mosher said in a statement Tuesday that the company will ensure the mill meets the stringent guidelines established in its operating guidelines. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. has pleaded guilty to three charges under the federal Fisheries Act related to numerous "significant" instances of effluent discharges from its pulp mill in west Saint John into the St. John River over a two-year period.

The company has agreed to pay $3.5 million in penalties as part of an agreed statement of facts and joint recommendation presented in provincial court Tuesday that involved 12 other charges being withdrawn.

A condition of the proposed court agreement would require the company to install a multi-million-dollar effluent treatment facility as a condition to operate.

Judge David Walker has reserved decision on sentencing until Nov. 5 at 1:30 p.m.

"I want to give it some thought," he said. "This is not an uncomplicated matter."

If the $3.5 million penalty is imposed, it will be one of the largest penalties for depositing of deleterious substances, Crown prosecutor Paul Adams told reporters following the hearing.

The volume and toxicity of the effluent involved in the 10 incidents that occurred between June 2014 and August 2016 were "very significant," Adams told the court.

And while no "actual harm" to fish or fish habitat was detected, he said "the potential for harm was quite significant" and should be treated "very seriously."

Adams described the St. John watershed as a valuable resource, worthy of the highest degree of protection.

'Acute lethality'

There are 53 species of fish in the watershed, according to the agreed statement of facts. Of those, at least 28 are connected to commercial, recreational and Indigenous fisheries, the document said. An additional 17 species are found at the mouth of the river, in the vicinity of the pulp mill.

Any deposits contribute to "incremental gradual degradation," said Adams.

The charges stem from the mill effluent failing "acute lethality" testing.

Under federal pulp and paper effluent regulations, mill effluent is deemed "acutely lethal" when it kills 50 per cent or more of the rainbow trout exposed to it at 100 per cent concentration within 96 hours.

Tests of the Irving Pulp and Paper mill effluent found it was 100 per cent lethal in four of the 10 incidents, according to the agreed statement of facts.

The effluent flow rate on one of those days was approximately 91,560,000 litres per day, the document states.

Some of the substances detailed in the court document included green liquor, black liquor, white liquor, and sodium hydroxide.

Self-reported, accepted responsibility

Irving Pulp and Paper self-reported all of the incidents, co-operated with the investigation, and accepted responsibility through its guilty pleas, said Adams.

Defence lawyer George Cooper said the company also undertook additional sampling, has submitted a plan to Environment Canada about the measures it will take to prevent future deposits, and will provide regular written reports on the plan's implementation.

Under the proposed agreement, $2.34 million of the $3.5 million penalty would be fines, payable to the federal environmental damages fund, while $1.16 million would go to Collaboration for Atlantic Salmon Tomorrow (CAST), a non-profit organization dedicated to wild Atlantic salmon research and conservation.

"Safeguarding the environment has been and continues to be our top priority," company vice-president said in a statement.

3 prior convictions

Each of the charges carries a minimum fine of $200,000 for a large corporation with a previous conviction. The maximum penalty for each charge is $8 million.

Irving Pulp and Paper has three prior convictions for violations of the act — in 1999, 2009 and 2010. The penalties in those cases ranged between $37,000 and $75,000.

Environment Canada also issued warnings to the company in 2011 and 2012.

J.D. Irving Ltd. spokeswoman Mary Keith has previously said the most recent charges stemmed from fish mortality rates in laboratory tests.

"The laboratory test does not reflect what would actually happen in the real world," she said in January 2017. "None of the incidents that resulted in the 15 charges resulted in any environmental damage. There was no fish mortality in the natural environment as a result of the incidents."

The mill, which produces kraft pulp from softwood and hardwood sources, has three outfall structures — the main mill outfall, the finishing room outfall and the cooling water outfall — each of which deposits effluent into the river, near the Reversing Falls.

The mill employs more than 375 people and is described by JDI as "the anchor of a forest products value chain that sustains over 4,600 direct jobs in Canada and the U.S."

No timeline for building the new effluent treatment facility was provided on Tuesday.

In its statement, the company said it proposed building a secondary effluent treatment facility in 1992, but due to "significant public opposition" decided instead to implement a "pollution prevention system" that's unique in Canada because it doesn't involve external lagoons.

It collects, treats and reuses the effluent within the pulp mill, minimizing the final effluent volume and content, said Irving.