When the department was contacted in July 2013, an email response to questions said nothing would be said on the alleged violations dating back to October 2011 while the matter is before the courts. “Questions should be directed to Environment Canada as they laid the charges under the federal Fisheries Act,” a spokeswoman said at the time.
But on Wednesday at provincial court in St. John’s, it was the provincial government drawn into the spotlight.
Perry Blanchard, currently the manager of safety, health and environment for Labrador operations with Vale, spent the day giving testimony in relation to two charges faced by the mining company, alleging breaches of the Fisheries Act with the release of wastewater deadly to fish into Anaktalak Bay.
He said the company reported the results of key environmental tests on the waste to both Environment Canada, as per the requirements of the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations of the Fisheries Act, but also the provincial Department of Environment.
“The provincial regulator agreed with that decision (to keep releasing effluent) and never took issue with that decision,” he said.
The provincial department regulates the effluent under the Environmental Control Water and Sewage Regulations, under the province’s Water Resources Act, with monitoring conducted by its pollution prevention division. The province provides a “Certificate of Approval,” allowing for operators to release effluent into provincial waters, given “acute lethality” test results and other key environmental tests completed by company contractors.
There are about 25 industry sites reporting data under the regulations to the province on a consistent basis.
“It’s a very prescribed compliance program,” Blanchard said, explaining everything from how the tests were to be conducted to the frequency of testing is dictated, with demands on the federal and provincial side being “one and the same” when it comes to the tests that were failed by Vale Newfoundland and Labrador on samples from the Voisey’s Bay site.
In addition to the failures in October 2011, being the focus of the charges, the company had a collection of intermittent test failures from roughly 2008-2010.
Blanchard testified the tests were happening in a laboratory but the same results — fish deaths — would not happen in the real world.
He attributed the failures to an interplay of environmental factors, acidizing mine tailings and wastewater alkalinity. More specifically, he said, wastewater samples would see change with light and temperature increases (from the two to three degrees underwater at Anaktalak Bay, to some 15 degrees Celsius in the lab), ultimately causing pH changes that would lead to test failures.
He said his primary contact at the provincial Department of Environment, Frank O’Dea, followed the company’s investigations. And, Blanchard said, O’Dea never asked Vale to stop releasing effluent into the bay.
That includes after a third “acute lethality” test failure in the one month of October 2011 and communication at that time to the province of the company’s decision to keep releasing wastewater.
Blanchard referenced environmental effects monitoring by the company, saying results support the “lab versus real world” thinking.