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Two Years Later, Charges Laid in Massive Alberta Coal Mine Spill

A billion liters of coal slurry flooded the Athabasca River from a collapsed Obed Mountain mine tailings pond in Alberta in 2013. Now, the province's energy regulator has laid six charges against the company.
Image via Alberta Environment

Nearly two years after a billion liters of coal slurry flooded the Athabasca River from a collapsed Obed Mountain mine tailings pond in Alberta, the province's energy regulator has laid six charges against the company.

Around 670,000 cubic meters of contaminated wastewater destroyed the Plante and Apetowun Creeks near Hinton, Alta. on the night of Oct. 31, 2013, before entering the Athabasca and traveling as a massive "plume" of sediments for over a month, eventually settling out in Lake Athabasca and the delta near Fort Chipewyan.


Last Friday, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) laid six charges against the mine's new and former owners, Coal Valley Resources Inc. (CVRI) and Sherritt International, alleging contraventions of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Public Lands Act and the Water Act.

According to the AER, the maximum possible fine based on the six charges would amount to $2.2 million. The first court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2016 in Hinton Provincial Court.

The company said it is reviewing the charges.

"Sherritt has worked with provincial and federal regulatory authorities throughout the investigation to ensure all requirements set forth by the Environmental Protection Order (EPO), issued by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) in November 2013 have been met," the company announced in a statement released Oct. 16.

"Sherritt and CVRI have met all requirements set forth by the EPO, including remediation, sampling and testing. Results from sampling and testing are posted on a weekly and monthly basis on the Obed website. Sherritt is committed to understanding the circumstances that contributed to the release and working with regulators to take the necessary steps to prevent any recurrence."

Related: Canada's Mines Could Harm Alaska's Salmon — and Its Economy

According to the AER, the breach spilled a mixture of wastewater, minerals, flocculent — "a thickener used during the production of coal" — and "a small amount of unrecovered coal" into the watershed.


In the weeks following the spill, Alberta Environment reported "impacts" to fish, confirming a number of contaminants had exceeded thresholds for aquatic life. Data released by Alberta's chief medical officer also revealed alarming concentrations of heavy metals and cancer-linked polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the plume, with mercury levels presenting at nine times the normal level and PAHs four times the allowable limit for Canadian drinking water.

Communities were told to halt water withdrawal from the river while the plume was passing by, though water quality inside the plume was found to be within safe guidelines for drinking water by the time it had reached Fort McMurray, according to Alberta Health.

But two years later, First Nations in Fort Chipewyan, who operate their own community-based water monitoring program, continue to say information from the government and company on what exactly was in the spilled tailings — and how much — has yet to be revealed.

"We still don't know the composition of the spill. No one has done a good fingerprint on what was in there," said Bruce Maclean, who coordinates the monitoring efforts on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations of Fort Chipewyan.

"An increase in concentrations of contaminants in fish downstream is a huge warning sign. But not knowing what was in the plume or the extent to where the sediment ended up makes it hard to say what it's impacts have been," Maclean said.


Though the AER had completed its investigation and passed its recommendations for prosecution on to the crown last March, spokesperson Ryan Bartlett said the regulator cannot release the results of its investigation until the matter has proceeded through the courts.

"In order to ensure legal fairness it is important to allow the judicial process to operate independently and only consider the findings of the investigation," he said in an email. "If investigation findings are released to the public prior to completing the enforcement action, the public could form opinions that could potentially influence one side of the case or prejudge the outcome prior to the administrative or judicial decision."

Earlier this year, CVRI released its final Human Health Risk Assessment to the provincial government, claiming "no adverse effects are predicted for the scenarios evaluated" and that "no residual, measurable effects on water or sediment quality (exist) in Obed area creeks or the Athabasca River."

That same report noted that mercury concentrations in general show "an apparent upward trend" downstream of the spill, beyond levels expected naturally. Arsenic, uranium and selenium also show a statistically significant increase downstream of the spill, though in concentrations "below levels expected to lead to a hazard."

Related: The Mount Polley Tailings Pond Disaster Has Sparked a First Nation Blockade


Despite those observations, Maclean said the report does nothing to monitor how those contaminant loads have or could spread throughout the food web, overlooking the way that toxins like mercury bio-accumulate, or increase as you go up the food chain.

"They've underemphasized but also, more importantly, they've under researched (the impacts) because they've only looked at benthic-eating fish, not the fish that people eat," he said. "It's weak science."

The First Nations are leading their own scientific investigation into what could have been in the plume, using sediment core sampling techniques that will hopefully date back to see what contaminants increased during and after the spill.

The results of that investigation could be used to fuel legal action based on Aboriginal and treaty rights, Maclean said, but likely a lot further down the road.

"The human health impact is that it's impacted fish that people eat. The fish they were already concerned about eating have been further impacted," he said. "What's frustrating for the First Nations is this legal process that takes so long, and at what point do treaty and Aboriginal rights come into the equation?"

Watch the VICE News documentary Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash here: 

Follow Meagan Wholberg on Twitter: @meaganimous