Vale N.L. not ordered to hold back waste

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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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.

Organizations: Environment Canada, Stantec, Department of Environment

Geographic location: Anaktalak Bay

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Recent comments

  • Mr. Parker
    May 29, 2014 - 09:07

    From the story above, it seems Vale followed the rules and that the Gov dropped the ball. Also, Voisey's Bay and Long Harbour were started by the great canadian company INCO. So stop blaming forgeiners. If people would learn the facts before commenting, it might help your arguement.

  • Mr. Parker
    May 29, 2014 - 09:01

    Seems like people forget that all the environmental concerns were explained in the beginning and dealt with before permitting and construction were allowed. But the people turned a blind eye and only complained when they have nothing better to do. Also, Voisey's Bay and Long Harbour were started by the Great Canadian Mining Company INCO. So stop being prejudice and blaming forgeiners.

  • kenneth
    May 22, 2014 - 21:57

    vale preaches safety in the faces of there workers to only be 2 faced . its really funny how they got warnings on this issue and nothing done .. when working for vale you dont get any warning and your gone . whats good for the goose is good for the gander we as the innu/ innuit culture should stand firm on these so called safety rapped vale and fix this once and for all before the all wil soon be digested into our future generation . is someone getting paid off here or butt kissed hmmmm i wonder .... something really stinks here . for vale to have a safety meeting and stare down there noses at the innocent workers and preach bull when they dont know there but from there faces is unreal. vale has proven once again in nl and also sudbury to eb one of the biggest and most curropt company of all time .. karma will get you oneday . so the next time you have a safety meeting admit your faulty first then try and improve instead of being total assholes....

  • Cashin Delaney
    May 08, 2014 - 23:28

     It used to be Navajo, r Dene, used as experimental mining test subjects, instead of Rainbow Trout, in Canada, in official Secrecy, not too long ago. For Win of big War with Bigger Bomb. Send Inuks to Resolute Bay, to feint sovereigness. To keep the world safe for democracy. Unreal. We are a growth concern, with scant oversight, now until Trudeau gets in, and someone grabs the attention away from his sexy hair and puts it on the environ, cuz the uncommunicative PM in power now has Five Eyes on the rest of the world, but none in the back of his head to monitor these eval stinko metallic painty can projects . The Inuit have come a long way since they were extreme PC green on everything from not calling A Bay, A Bay, to biodegradable surveyors ribbon. Vale proved that altruistic signifying is worthless, without the presistance to carry through. Come visit LonglivedandPhosphorus Harbour, in Pee Bay, in the Umiak...the first site in Newfoundland to be Decimated by the after effects of cheap green, economy disrupting, govt crown subsidized hydroelectric energy for merchant-adventurous mining refining projects. We are going for UNESCO status, on this fact. Right after we help Bay D'Espoir get theirs. Nain and Long Harbour need to partner. get thicker than thieves, so to speak. Thicker on community. A joint submission to the centre for lw and democracy would be a good start. Vale has a global track record of both huge success, and heinous disregard for indigenous rights. We want to support Vale, not anagram it. This was so preventable, and able to have been mitigated. The cabin owners of Salmonier Line have all but shut Al Chisslett down on social license alone,  from building a road to gold. Nain, full of youth, reduced to a flyin, fly out, and Long Harbour, no kids, transient work force. A progressive society can emerge, if we are willing to work for it. Not only that, we will work, while those without the zeal to work at it lay dormant, and only let them be inspired. Self-censorship is killing our communities. The root of "feeling" as though you were bullied. I am not trying to bully or coerce anyone to action, only harangue, and call for nonviolent response through art. Anyone can get up, but few can tag it for what it is. If we must resort to digital graffiti, to get points across, if Twitter, and not stagehall or townhead will do, then is it democracy? I have been jabbing at the telegram, Harper, Vale, GMC, all the politicians, Captain Feathersword from the Wiggles, youngsters, old people, black people, RNC, white people, gay people Churches, straight people, wiggly people, Union People, prickly people and basically anyone who gets on with a known fallacy in especially these comments sections, on matters of all types. The problem is, few reads this rambling dross. You have forced me to write essays, on demand. These are free essays, but not easy to swallow. The only secrets I cannot reveal to you, is the final secret of the illuminati. However, I am able to gather news from the future, if you are willing to believe in me. Since December 22 2012, I have been receiving 'news' on all manner of topics by this voice in my head. I did a foolish thing. I implanted a radio in my scalp that is permantly tuned to 590AM VOCM, however, sometimes, a feedback/signalskip thing happens when I'm on the rum, and I start picking up 590, but from the future. I have been this long on the Internet, no one told me really how it works, learned it all on my own, but I tried to start, and I was stymied; it already exists! They have been to the "Island of St. John's" and gave a terrific round of presentations. Since I cannot use futurenews, now, to reveal my drunken prophecy, I need another name. The strangest audio that comes is the more unfamiliar futures of other cities am stations, and when there is no 590 at all. That is scary. I don't go far in the woods anymore at all! I wouldn't be able to live without it now, even If it is all pure static.

  • Maggy Carter
    May 08, 2014 - 10:53

    For anyone in the media or opposition parties here and in Ottawa, this story has enough grist to keep the mills grinding a long time. There is the obvious incompetence and dereliction of duty by federal and provincial environmental agencies. (Like a police officer saying he followed a drunk driver for twenty miles before deciding to pull him over.) Then there's governments' refusal to disclose information relating to the charges. Any wonder Newfoundlanders are still dumping their garbage in the woods with the examples being set by their own governments. We have always been willing to roll over and play dead for industrial polluters whenever big bucks were at stake. (Let our children and grandchildren deal with the consequences.) Is that why the officer failed to act. The question not being asked is who else in the senior ranks of government was aware that this was going on. Was there a conspiracy of silence. Why is the admissibility of documents now being challenged. Any chance that - like the oil industry - it is a case of government obligating itself to keep it secret? Finally, given the volume of the waste released, what testing of fish for toxicity was subsequently undertaken to protect the public. Not a great advertisement for all that northern shrimp they've been fighting over.

  • Brad
    May 08, 2014 - 09:53

    So how long will Vale be poisoning Placentia Bay before they stop them? The fact that they even allow this practice shows the integrity and intelligence of our elected officials. We can't flush a toilet into the ocean but a mining company can dump millions of tonnes of poisonous effluent into it.

    • Cassie Daumier
      May 08, 2014 - 12:56

      Just appalling testimony from the powers who are supposed to protect us. It's just shocking!

  • james browne
    May 08, 2014 - 07:27

    These companies come into Canada and in our case Newfoundland ( ERCO,KRUGER,RIO TINTO,VALE ) to name a few and then people who are supposed to look after our interests have the nerve to continuously spout rhetoric that justifies the actions of these conglomerates . Then the so call inspectors have the gaul when questioned explain their ignorance as to the rights of the companies to pollute. Mulroney wasn't the only one who should have been convicted.