Investigation work is ongoing into the spill of mercury into the Columbia River from Teck Trail Operations last Thursday, October 7. While not yet confirmed, it is suspected that between 12 and 15 kilograms of mercury was discharged into the river. Teck’s permitted mercury discharge levels into the river are 400 grams per day. Preliminary test results have shown, however, that water quality in the Columbia has remained within the Canadian Drinking Water Quality guidelines.
Mercury spills into Columbia during pipe work at Teck
The spill occurred during reconfiguration work on the piping of the effluent treatment plant at Trail Operations on the east side of the property, near the riverbank.
On the Teck property there are “a number of water courses that pick up metals or processed solutions of various sorts as they work their way through the Trail Operations site,” noted Richard Deane. Those water courses are collected and treated in the effluent plant on site to remove any metals before emptying back into the Columbia. One of the pumps in the sump system failed during the reconfiguration work. That failure allowed the solution containing mercury to overflow into a separate line which discharges into the river.
At that point Teck followed standard procedure, contacting the Provincial Emergency Program (PEP), the Ministry of the Environment, and Environment Canada, notifying them of the spill. An internal investigation into the incident is now underway. It could take weeks or months to complete the process.
“The investigation for an event of this nature is very detailed and a thorough process and it’ll take some time in the range of weeks or even months,” explained Deane. “Work in terms of the reconfiguration of the piping is completed. We won’t be continuing with any work of this nature until we’ve worked our way through the investigation and are confident we’ve identified exactly what occurred to allow this discharge into the river and to make sure we can put in place preventative measures or remedial measures that would minimize the possibilities of that occurring again.”
While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary data recorded at a monitoring station in the Columbia River, downstream of Teck at the Old Trail Bridge showed a rise in mercury concentration in the water; however, mercury levels in the water remained within the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines (CDWAG)limit of one part per billion. The United States EPA drinking water standards allow for two parts per billion mercury concentration.
“There is a background level of mercury that normally exists in the river,” added Deane. “The concentrations during this event remained below the CDWQG. There is a range of samples that come back and some of them were far below and some were in the range of half or a little bit more than half of the water quality guidelines of the Canadian Standard.”
Citing dramatic improvements in their environmental performance over the last couple of decades, Teck has stressed their regret for this spill and pledge to do what they can to prevent similar future accidents.
“An incident like this is a significant misstep for us,” added Deane. “It’s not acceptable for Teck, and it’s a very regrettable incident. The investigative process which we’re going to go through is a very detailed and thorough process, so we clearly understand what the root cause of this incident was so we can take the appropriate measure to minimize the potential for this type of thing to occur again."