Teck May Pay Big for Lead Spill, Ordered to Pay Native Band's Legal Costs

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
March 18th, 2009

Teck may be on the hook for millions of dollars for the large spill of lead and hydrofluoric acid from its Trail plant into the Columbia River in the spring of 2008. The spill, which occurred at approximately 5:30 PM on May 28th, 2008, was attributed to a heat exchanger in the lead refinery which failed, allowing electrolyte (a solution of hydrofluoric acid and lead) to spill into a storm water drainage and then into the Columbia River over a five hour period. During that time some 900 kilograms of lead and 360 litres of acid leaked into the Columbia. Speaking with the Vancouver Sun on the non-effect the spill had on Teck share prices, Kerry Smith, an analyst at Haywood Securities in Toronto, said the spill was not of significant size when compared to the size of the river and the annual amount of solution the company is allowed to discharge. “To me, it’s a bit like a putting a teaspoon full of vinegar into your swimming pool,” he said. “It’s not a big volume of material, environmentally or technically. But it’s kind of a public relations issue.” “To put it in perspective, our permits allow us to discharge some amount of lead, about 60 kg a day at our permits level,” said Greg Waller, a spokesperson for Teck. As per regulations, Teck immediately notified the Provincial Emergency Program (PEP), the Ministry of Environment, and Environment Canada. Environmental personnel out of Nelson attended and subsequent to that, senior investigators out of the Commercial Environmental Investigations Unit (CEIU) conducted a formal investigation of the incident. The incident was investigated by the CEIU, who inspected the works, inspected the facility, interviewed several Teck employees, and reviewed documents and submissions by the company on their procedures and the accident itself. The entire investigation was relayed in a report to Crown council that was submitted October 20th, 2008 and then on March 12th, 2009, charges were laid and summonses were issued. Six charges in total have been laid against Teck relating to the incident. “Four of the charges relate to permit violations that they violated sections of their permit in allowing the discharge to occur,” explained Kelly Dahl, senior investigator with the CEIU, based in Kamloops. “There is also one count under section 6.2 of the Environmental Management act for discharging waste into the environment and there is one additional count under the Federal Fisheries Act for discharging a deleterious substance into waters frequented by fish and that would be the Columbia River. We’re saying that the material was deleterious to fish. Toxic to fish as discharged.” The charges on the summonses read as: Count 1: on or about May 28,2008 at or near Trail C did commit an offence of Depositing deleterious substance in waters frequented by fish, contrary to section 26(3) of the Fisheries Act (Federal) Counts 2,3,4 and 6: On or about May 28,2008, at or near Trail BC, did commit an offence of failure to comply with permit, contrary to section 120 (7) of the Environemntal Management Act Count 5: On or about May 28,2008 at or near TrailBC did commit an offence of introducing business related waste into environemnt , contrary to section 6 (2) Environmental Management Act Teck will now face a court appearance on May 14th 2009 in Rossland where the corporation’s representatives will be able to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty. The matter will then be set over for another date with the potential to either go to trial or some other form of hearing as decided upon by the judge. The one count (under section 6.2 of the Environmental Management Act) of introducing waste to the environment has a maximum penalty of up to one million dollars or six months in jail. The other four counts for breaches of the permit could result in a $300,000 dollar fine or six months in jail and the Federal Fisheries Act charge (the deleterious substance charge) has a maximum charge of up to $300,000 on that count. In total, if found guilty on all six charges, the penalties could range up to 2.5 million dollars. “These are fairly serious offenses and that’s why they have maximum fines that are in the high area,” said Dahl. “Those maximum fines represent worst case scenarios. The court will decide where this incident sits on that continuum. There are creative sentencing options available to the court, so there are fines but there are also other options available if the judge sees fit.” While the potential financial damage to Teck has yet to be decided, any environmental damage from the spill has already happened. Investigations performed by both Teck and the Washington State Department of Ecology during and after the spill indicate that environmental damage was light to none. The Department of Ecology scientists measured the river as flowing at 210,000 cubic feet per second during the time of the spill, which they believed would have neutralized the acid solution, but they are concerned about the lead, an element that accumulates in river sediments as well as fish and animal tissue. While no warnings were issued at the time of the spill regarding the safety of recreating in or eating fish from the river downstream, ongoing studies by the Washington State Department of Ecology are attempting to discern the effect of the spill in the context of high lead levels already existing in the river which result from a century’s use of the largest North American river flowing into the Pacific Ocean as an industrial sewage line. “Historically, Washington’s environment has paid the price for pollution released from this facility. We are deeply concerned that this spill could add to that unfortunate legacy,” said Washington State Department of Ecology Director, Jay Manning. “Teck Cominco should use every available resource to negate the adverse environmental effects from this spill. We will do what we can to minimize the spill’s impact here in Washington to protect Lake Roosevelt and the people who live in the area.” In the past week Teck has had a separate legal battle settled in which they have been ordered to pay back what will amount to approximately one million US dollars in legal fees to the Colville Indian Reservation for costs associated with their five year legal battle with Teck over cleaning up the “millions of tons of toxic materials.” As noted by Colville Business Council representative for the Inchelium District, Virgil Seymour Sr, “The original legal action was brought on by the tribe. We wanted to make Teck Cominco Responsible for the cleanup of Lake Roosevelt. We pushed that as far as we could go, and so we brought on another suit to try and get that enforced. We won in the District Court level. That was appealed by Teck to the 9th Circuit court; we won there; they appealed that to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court denied to hear the case. So now it’s back in District Court and I think our next court date is in 2010.” Starting in 1999, the Colville reservation has been asking the US Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that Teck complies with US Superfund legislation which is designed to hold companies accountable by first insisting they conduct scientific assessments of environmental damage and then clean up any mess. There has been an ongoing battle since then as to whether or not the American legislation applies to Teck, a Canada-based company. In 2004, the Colville reservation initiated legal action with the goal of holding Teck responsible. “While that was going on, Teck and the EPA cut a deal that would make Teck responsible for doing a RIFS, or Remedial Investigation Feasibility Study. Because the EPA hasn’t been happy with [Teck’s] plan they–what is happening right now is the EPA is going to step in and they are going to help rewrite the plan and hopefully through all of this the study will be done within a year or two and the cleanup process can begin,” explained Seymour. The Teck spokesman for the RIFS was out of the office this week and unavailable for comment. “What the tribe is looking for–and we realize that this much pollution is never going to be completely cleared up–but what we’d like to do is be able to clean up some of the beaches that are going to be publicly used and do some replacement of some of the sand and gravel. We would like to see that, but ultimately the goal is to get the river to the safest condition possible for the public and the wildlife,” said Seymour. In the meantime, while the two sides prepare for the next court date in 2010, the one million dollar award has been a welcome , if not small victory for the reservation. “It’s good news for the tribe to know that we’ll be able to recoup some of the money we’ve put into it, especially in these tough economic times,” said Seymour. As the major force battling Teck to clean up its past environmental damage, the Colville Indian Reservation feels that it is their duty, whatever the cost, to help the river that has helped their people for generations. “The river has been a very important part of our culture for over 9,000 years. The river has been very good to our people for thousands of years and that’s why we’re in this fight: to make sure that we can keep it clean and keep it alive for our children thousands of years more into the future.”

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