Companies Finally Pay for Athabasca River Coal Mine Spill

by megpunter on October 6, 2017 - 11:51pm

“Companies Finally Pay for Athabasca River Coal Mine Spill”

The Athabasca River in Alberta has suffered many coal mine spills in the recent past, and the companies responsible are now paying the price. The question is whether a fine is enough. Within the span of four months, two companies have been charged for the dumping of effluent waste into the river, an ecologically significant habitat for many species such as the endangered rainbow trout, as well as a water source to many, and a culturally significant landform for First Nation peoples.

The first company charged, Prairie Mines & Royalty Ltd., or previously known as Coal Valley Resources caused the largest spill in Canadian history on October 31st, 2013. The coal mine near Hinton leaked approximately 670 million liters of waste water containing clay, mud, shale, and coal as well as compounds such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese. Action was not taken for three weeks; the entire time, residents were unsure whether it was safe to draw water as the slurry floated by. Since then, an environmental protection order required the company to create plans for mitigating the effects and managing them, as well as a remediation strategy. In June 2017, the company was fined almost $4.5 million in federal and provincial penalties after it pleaded guilty.

Sherritt International Corp., a second company also pleaded guilty in provincial court. They paid a fine of $1-million for three counts under the Federal Fisheries Act, many years since. They were charged five years ago for allowing toxic wastewater to flow into the Athabasca River from their Coal Valley Mine just 120 km away from Jasper National Park on several occasions, found during an inspection in August 2012. They were thought to have allowed half a million liters of waste water that were highly toxic. The company has claimed they have installed new systems and improved management strategies since, even though they sold the mine in 2014. They have taken responsibility, surely to maintain their public appearance under such negative media attention.

Is the threat of fines enough to ensure that large coal mine companies implement measures to prevent spills and the dumping of waste that has not been properly treated? These companies are now paying the fines four to five years later. These companies surely are worth much more than these sums. Though the fines are high, the profit gained from their ventures are likely much more. The risk of getting fined might not be enough to have large mining companies adhere to regulations. Also, the economic benefits of mines are high. This may cause regulations to be looser, as they can be seen as beneficial to the economy despite their threat to the health of the surrounding environment. This may cause political uncertainty between departments of the government.

It is the role of the state to ensure that the environmental integrity and the wellbeing of the population is maintained. The spill threatened both of these. The quality of water effects the wildlife living in and depending on it, First Nation communities and all Canadians.  The government must take all actions possible to prevent these spills from occurring, not just deal with the aftermath when the damage has already been done. Though millions of dollars are put into management, monitoring and mitigation after the spill, this would not be necessary if regulations were stricter on these companies. Punishment for these acts must be more severe and regulatory instruments must be increased. Daniel Smith claims that “the severity of the fine reflects the size of the offence”, but is this accurate? Is a million-dollar fine compensation for severely polluting ecologically and socially important waterways? NDP critic Rachel Notley stressed that “Albertans simply cannot count on this government to keep our air, our land and our water safe”.


The Globe and Mail. (2017). Sherrit fined $1-million for polluting incidents that impacted fish in Alberta. Retrieved from

Global News. (2013). First Nation angry with province’s response to coal mine. Retrieved from

Global News. (2017). Coal mine fined $3.5M for 2013 spill that contaminated Alberta river system. Retrieved from

Roth, R. Policy Implementation in the context of political and ecological uncertainty. Management of the Biophysical Environment (GEOG 3210). University of Guelph. Lecture delivered on: October 4th, 2017. 

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