A second coal-mining company in four months is being hit with a seven-figure penalty for polluting incidents that impacted fish in tributaries of the Athabasca River east of Jasper National Park in Alberta.
On Tuesday, Sherritt International Corp. (TSX:S) agreed to pay a fine of $1-million after pleading guilty in provincial court to three counts under the federal Fisheries Act.
The Toronto-based company was charged five years ago due to incidents where wastewater considered toxic to fish was allowed to flow from its open pit Coal Valley Mine about 120 kilometres east of Jasper National Park into ecologically significant habitat for rainbow trout.
In June, Prairie Mines & Royalty Ltd. – formerly known as Coal Valley Resources – was handed almost $4.5-million in federal and provincial penalties after it also pleaded guilty to polluting tributaries of the Athabasca River.
Prairie Mines was charged after a catastrophic break in an earthen berm at its Obed Mountain coal mine about 50 kilometres east of the park allowed an estimated 670 million litres of wastewater to escape into the river system in October 2013.
Environment and Climate Change Canada said Tuesday the Sherritt charges were laid following an inspection in August 2012 at the coal mine located about 90 kilometres south of the town of Edson.
The company was ordered to stop its practice and the ministry subsequently discovered that two other discharges had occurred in 2011.
The severity of the fine reflects the size of the offence as half a million litres of poorly treated effluent was estimated to have escaped into the environment, said Daniel Smith, regional director for environmental enforcement for Environment Canada in Edmonton.
"In this case, in addition to the significant volumes deposited in the river, the toxicity level was quite high in the tests that we performed ... (It) resulted in 100 per cent mortality in our lab samples," he said.
"These rivers and creeks in the foothills contain sensitive habitat for some protected species so it is quite an important watershed."
He said the Coal Valley Mine was treating collected surface water with a chemical to remove suspended fine sediment but it wasn't properly monitoring the dosage, resulting in discharges that were just as toxic to fish.
Sherritt investor relations director Joe Racanelli said the company installed new sediment control systems and initiated better management practices after the charges were laid.
He said the company is taking responsibility even though it sold the coal mine in 2014.
"We do not own the Coal Valley Mine but we were operators and owners at the time so we are responsible because there was a non-compliance issue. Sherritt takes these kinds of issues very seriously," he said.
He wouldn't comment when asked if the amount of the fine was negotiated in return for the guilty plea.
Most of the $1-million fine is to be assigned to Environment Canada's environmental damages fund to be directed to programs intended to benefit the natural environment.