Former Environment Canada officer details slow response to failed tests
Environment Canada officer Ron Hunter was kept informed as, repeatedly, samples of treated liquid waste from Vale Newfoundland and Labrador’s mine site at Voisey’s Bay failed a key environmental safety test in October 2011.
Now retired, former Environment Canada officer Ron Hunter took the stand at provincial court in St. John’s Wednesday, taking questions regarding mine waste and his role in monitoring operations at Vale’s Voisey’s Bay mine site in northern Labrador. Hunter was called as part of the trial expected to determine if Vale Newfoundland and Labrador violated the federal Fisheries Act and illegally dumped lethal waste from the mine into Anaktalak Bay. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
According to the now-retired officer’s testimony, during a day of trial at provincial court in St. John’s Wednesday, it took the better part of the month and a third failed test before he felt the need to give formal direction to the company about the discharge of the waste into nearby Anaktalak Bay, on the Labrador coast.
Release of treated mine waste into the waters is permitted, but only with regular testing showing it remains within specific parameters, for the protection of the environment.
During Hunter’s testimony, a reference was made to a “final discharge point monthly summary,” stating a total volume of waste released into the bay during the month in question was 492,337 cubic metres — enough to fill 197 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The Telegram has yet to see that document.
The first failed “acute lethality” test for the month was reported on Oct. 4.
The feed into the bay was, according to discussion in court, shut down Oct. 31.
Wearing a dark grey suit rather than the green jacket of active Environment Canada officers, Hunter was on the stand as a witness for the Crown.
The legal case underway involves a trio of allegations against Vale Newfoundland and Labrador for violations of the federal Fisheries Act.
The case focuses on liquid waste taken from the company’s tailings impoundment put through a special wastewater treatment plant before being sent into Edwards Cove in Anaktalak Bay.
The waste — according to charges laid against the company and testimony by the Crown’s witness — was consistently tested at the point of its release, at least 50 metres out into the bay.
For the testing, the company takes samples of treated waste and sends it to a contracted laboratory. Testing for the Voisey’s bay mine was being completed by Stantec in St. John’s.
The sample effluent is tested for the presence of various metals. A separate test determines whether or not the waste should be considered “acutely lethal” for fish. That test requires at least 96 hours, wherein 10 live rainbow trout are placed into the effluent and watched.
Death of the fish is bad. And Hunter said the Vale wastewater was repeatedly found to be lethal, due to its acidity.
At the time, he was responsible for assuring the mine’s compliance with Metal Mining Effluent Regulations under the federal Fisheries Act. And for most of the month where tests were showing a danger, he said, he never directly instructed Vale to stop sending the waste into the ocean.
He was asked why that direction was not given after the first failed test. “It wasn’t in my heart right then to tell the mine how to do their business basically,” he replied.
“They were investigating to determine what had gone wrong, your honour.”
A second test, immediately required, led to a second failure. Again, no immediate action was taken to stop release of the effluent into the bay.
“The third failure hit me,” the enforcement officer said, referring to a later test.
At that point, he contacted one of the company’s environmental staff and gave a verbal warning.
“I told her at that point I was going to give her a verbal direction — which was basically to do everything in their power to come into compliance with the regulations,” he said.
A verbal order is automatically followed by the same direction in writing. That written direction is dated Nov. 8, according to a reference made to the Crown’s case files. By then, Hunter said, the company had already stopped sending its waste into the bay, until the cause of the failed testing could be identified and addressed.
As for why he did not order Vale to keep the waste at its site sooner, in a tailings impoundment area: “That, your honour, was not my business of knowing exactly their treatment system, and there could be liabilities involved with telling them ... how to run their business,” he said.
He was later asked again.
“I didn’t want the liability of telling a mine how to do their business,” he said.
In discussing regulations, under questioning from Vale Newfoundland and Labrador attorney Doug Hamilton, Hunter said he was not aware of exactly how the mining company’s effluent treatment system operated, what its limitations were, the details of the water management plans for its tailings impoundment area, or the layout of the system of piping used to move effluent around the mine site.
When the charges of illegal dumping against Vale Newfoundland and Labrador first came to light, in July 2013, The Telegram sought basic information on the case, including the volume of toxic material alleged to have been sent out into the environment; the type of material; basic information on what environmental monitoring was regularly conducted at the fly-in, fly-out mine site; and whether or not the provincial government had been aware of the charges against the company.
Through their various spokespeople, Environment Canada, the provincial Department of Environment, and Vale Newfoundland and Labrador all declined to comment, saying the case was before the courts and Crown attorney Mark Steers said he was similarly unable to discuss the case.
A request was subsequently made for a packet of documentation held by the Crown — including environmental testing and monitoring reports from the mine and emails between the mining company’s environmental staff and regulators. That information was denied, at least prior to the start of trial.
The same documentation is now in dispute in terms of its admissability. As a result, the trial will be paused for a time after this week, while Judge Jim Walsh makes determinations on that front.
None of the allegations against the mining company have yet been proven.