Teck sentenced to six-digit fine after spill

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
December 9th, 2009

This Wednesday Teck appeared in Rossland’s provincial court to be sentenced for their spill of 800 plus kilograms of electrolyte (containing acid and lead) into the Columbia River on May 28th of this year.

While the maximum penalty for the crime was a fine of $1,000,000 or six months in jail, Teck walked away with a total fine of just under $115,000 for the offence.

Before handing down her judgement, Judge Lisa Mroznski noted that the case involved “a complicated and technical set of facts,” and that she didn’t “purport to understand all of the details.”

Earlier in the day, during the trial, Teck’s lawyers pleaded guilty to the offence and suggested an appropriate fine would be a creative sentencing option of $110,000 with the money being split between two local environmental groups, The Columbia River Integrated Environmental Monitoring program and the Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative – Technical Working Group.

In handing down her judgement, Nroznski explained the five factors she considered while coming up with the sentence: criminality, attempts to comply, remorse, the size of the corporation, profits realized and whether or not Teck had a criminal record.

On the notion of criminality, the judge noted that there was clear negligence on behalf of Teck that led to the spill and that there was an institutional failure to assure back up plans were in place. Had there been a backup plan in place this spill would have been avoided.

There were several aspects to Teck’s negligence. The spill itself was caused by the failure of a two-year-old heat exchanger unit in the lead refinery. While the spill began at 4:30, the spill was elongated and exacerbated by human error and negligence attributed to Teck’s failure to properly train their staff and the lack of a backup plan or measure to divert any spills into the company’s effluent system rather than straight into the river, as was the case.

During the course of the spill (which continued on for six hours before it was noticed and rectified) five separate employees misread the readings on instruments which were functioning properly.

Richard Deane explained after the sentencing. “The instruments were difficult to read; they presented the information in a manner that led the operators to believe the system was normal…The problem occurred on the operators who looked at the actual instrument screen and mis-interpreted the information they were looking at. That resulted in a delay in stopping the spill.”

The judge noted that, in terms of complying with standards of operating, there was evidence of significant negligence on Teck’s part and that their compliance fell well below the standards of due diligence. In fact, there was no backup system in place so that in the event of a spill the waste could be diverted not into the river, but into the effluent treatment plant. It was noted that the company did show remorse and has made and will continue to make significant improvements to the safety of their property. However, in the same thought the judge added that the company should not “lurch from disaster to disaster,” and that it should not take a major spill to cause them to improve their performance.

The past criminal record of Teck was a source of controversy as the Crown indicated four past criminal convictions involving Teck and that there was “no doubt of previous environmental record of convictions,” the last of which was 20 years ago.

In Teck’s favour, it was added that while the size of the corporation was large, there were no profits realized as a result of the spill.

The judge’s stated goal in handing down her sentence was “to first stop environmental damage, second to clean it up, and third to prevent it from happening again.”

Ultimately, a total payment of $115,000 was put on Teck to be paid within 30 days. $4,300 plus a 50% victim surcharge in fines were levied plus $110,000 to be paid in equal parts to the Columbia River Integrated Environmental Monitoring program and the Upper Columbia White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative – Technical Working Group just as Teck suggested to the judge.

Teck, it should be noted, is also involved in both of these environmental groups through their Trail operations as well as their Waneta Dam operation and already financially contributes to these groups regularly.

Whether or not this $115,000 contribution as part of the sentence to the two environmental groups will affect Teck’s regular existing contributions to these two groups is unknown at this stage.

In response to a question about whether or not Teck believed the judgement to be fair, Richard Deane replied “First thing I’d like to say is that we deeply regret this event occurring in the first place. We take our responsibility for our environmental performance very seriously and we fully accept that responsibility to the citizens. In regards to the decision of the court we accept that decision and we’re supportive of the recommendation for the majority of the funds to be directed to these two Columbia River environmental groups.”

Categories: General