Polaris mine operator guilty of illegally spilling fuel

Judge will weigh arguments in deciding on a fine


Teck Cominco Metals Ltd., the operator of the former Polaris Mine on Little Cornwallis Island, deserves a $100,000 fine for the several thousand litres of diesel fuel spilled into Crozier Strait on Cornwallis Island one year ago, Crown lawyer John Cliffe said in court this week.

Teck Cominco pleaded guilty on July 16 to one count of depositing “deleterious” or harmful waste into fish-inhabited waters. The Fisheries Act offence comes with maximum fine of $300,000.

The spill originated from the fuel tank farm at the Polaris mine site, which closed in 2002 after 22 years of operation. The fuel leak had nothing to do with the closure.

Richard Tourigny, Teck Cominco’s lawyer, called Cliffe’s suggestion a “harsh penalty” and asked for a $30,000 fine.

The matter was still before the courts as of Nunatsiaq News’ press-time this week.

The exact amount of the spill is not known, because investigators arrived four days after it occurred.

But on June 26, the day after the leak was detected, the company called the 24-hour NWT Spill Report Line and reported that an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 litres of diesel fuel had left the tank farm, according to an agreed statement of facts filed in court.

The fuel leaked down a bank and into waters frequented by whales, walrus, seals, cod, sculpin, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

There were no obvious dead or dying fish observed in the strait but “that is not to say … there was no adverse impact on the fish that frequented these waters,” the statement says.

Teck Cominco’s clean environmental record went right out the window with that one spill, Cliffe said.

“They didn’t exercise the care that should have been exercised. This is a large, wealthy corporation, and the sentence must reflect the deterrents. It’s trite to say the North is opening up to mineral exploration and a signal has to come that this court takes these offences seriously,” he said.

Fuel was being transferred from one tank to another June 25. The man assigned to monitor the task was a company refrigerator mechanic with no training in spill management, the statement says.

Around noon, the mine’s supervisor of yards and services, Brad Sewell, activated a sump pump. The pump was used to eliminate a build-up of spring runoff and rain water within the tank farm.

Such water build up is not uncommon, the statement says.

Sewell was not told about the fuel transfer, which was also under way. When he turned on the pump, water, and several thousand liters of fuel flowed into the sea.

Sea ice and wind are credited with keeping the spill from spreading. A 600-metre stretch of shoreline was contaminated in addition to Crozier Strait. About 125 tonnes of diesel-contaminated soil was removed.

Diesel fuel spilled into water spreads quickly. Fish absorb the fuel through their gills and then in the liver, pancreas and stomach, making the fish unsafe for human consumption.

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