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A coal mining company was fined approximately $4.5 million in federal and provincial penalties as a result of a spill from its tailings pond into tributaries flowing into the Athabasca River in Alberta. Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC (formerly known as Coal Valley Resources Inc.) pled guilty in Alberta Provincial Court on June 9, 2017, to two counts of violating the Federal Fisheries Act and one count under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

An estimated 670 million litres of wastewater discharged into the Apetowun Creek and Plante Creek resulting in impacts to the Athabasca River when the earthen berm broke at the Obed Mountain mine on October 31, 2013. The contaminated wastewater and sediment consisted of coal, clay and sand.

The Honourable Judge C.D. Gardner sentenced the company to pay monetary penalties totaling $3,500,000 for the federal charges. Approximately, $1,150,000 of the fine will be put into a trust to be managed by the University of Alberta to create the Alberta East Slopes Fish Habitat and Native Fish Recovery Research Fund. While approximately $2,150,000 will be directed to the Environmental Damages Fund.

The provincial penalty resulted in a fine of an additional $925,000: $363,000 allocated to fund a dam safety research project related to coal mine water storage; and, $370,000 for an indigenous youth education project.

Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC pled guilty to the following federal offences:

  • one count of carrying on a work, undertaking or activity that resulted in in the harmful alteration or disruption, or the destruction, of fish habitat in contravention of s.35(1) of the Fisheries Act; and
  • one count of depositing or permitting the deposit of a deleterious substance of any type in water frequented by fish in contravention of s.36(3) of the Fisheries Act.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada stated that the judge made clear that the company is responsible to clean up damage: “The judge ordered the accused to rehabilitate five kilometres of the Upper Apetowun Creek” being the creek that suffered the most impact by the release.

The Alberta Energy Regulator has reported that the coal mine, situated approximately 30 kilometres east of Hinton in the foothills of western Alberta, is being decommissioned and reclaimed by its owner.

It will be interesting to see whether or not this decision is evidence of a trend by the Federal government to enforce the Fisheries Act and will take steps to pursue charges against the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia.

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