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Highway 63 passes over the Athabasca river near Fort McKay, Alberta on Monday, June 16, 2014.AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

Two companies have been charged over a huge 2013 spill from a coal tailings pond that fouled tributaries feeding the Athabasca River.

Coal Valley Resources Inc. and Sherritt International Corp. face six charges under Alberta's Environmental Protection Act, Public Lands Act and Water Act.

The charges follow a spill of about 670 million litres of waste water that gushed out of a broken earth berm at the Obed Mountain mine near Hinton on Oct. 31, 2013.

The Alberta Energy Regulator said at the time of the spill, Coal Valley operated the mine as a subsidiary of Sherritt.

The regulator said material in the spill included minerals, bits of coal and a substance used in coal production. Last year, an Environment Canada database said the spill contained damaging compounds such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese.

In the weeks following the spill, the province advised downstream communities not to draw water from the river and farmers not to let livestock drink from it. Two tributaries of the Athabasca River were affected.

"I'm happy they're facing six charges," said Bruce Maclean, who helps First Nations in Fort Chipewyan operate an environmental monitoring program.

"There's a lot of concerns in the community related to wild food health."

Brittany Verbeek of the Alberta Wilderness Association also welcomed the news.

"After waiting almost two years, we were pleased they are pressing charges," she said.

However, she called on federal prosecutors to lay charges under the federal Fisheries Act. She also said there remain unanswered questions about the Obed spill.

"There's lots of questions about whether there were issues prior to the spill," she said.

Officials with the companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The maximum combined fine for all six charges is just over $2-million, said Fraser Thomson, a lawyer for Ecojustice. That's not enough, he said.

"If the government is going to get serious about preventing these kinds of occurrences, they need to look at increasing those maximums."

Thomson said Environment Canada said as late as Sept. 25 they were still investigating the spill.

The companies are to appear in Hinton provincial court on the charges on Jan. 20.

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