It seems like high fines and penalties for environmental violations are becoming the norm. For example, last year, an Alberta oil company was convicted of violating both federal and Alberta environmental law in the deaths of hundreds of birds that landed on its tailing pond and was sentenced to pay $3 million in fines and creative sentences. And a court in the Northwest Territories recently penalized a utility company nearly half a million dollars for the breach of a reservoir dyke. Here’s a look at that case.
A power station plant operator saw that the water level in the reservoir had reached the level of the dyke and arranged to have heavy equipment operators flown in to deal with the situation. But their flight was delayed and by the time they arrived, the dyke had been breached. As a result, water from the reservoir flowed into a lake and river system for 13 days and eroded 111,000 m3 of vegetation, earth and permafrost soil. The utility pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act.
Court’s Sentencing Explanation
The court analyzed various factors in arriving at the appropriate sentence, including the following:
- A breach of the dyke was foreseeable and the utility knew the serious consequences of such a breach
- The breach was a “catastrophic event” that killed fish, destroyed fish habitats and altered the environment in ways that couldn’t be reversed
- The utility didn’t exercise due diligence to prevent a breach from happening
- Engineering staff told the people monitoring the water level the wrong height of the dyke
- The utility had one prior environmental conviction from 21 years ago
- It immediately reported the incident and brought in workers and equipment to address the situation
- It took responsibility for the breach by pleading guilty
- The utility’s president and CEO was present for the sentencing proceedings, although he didn’t make a statement
- The utility had a net income of more than $7 million
- It had spent over $1 million addressing the breach.
Based on these factors, the court ordered the utility to pay a $25,000 fine and $425,000 to be used to promote conservation and the protection of fish and fish habitats in the Territories [R. v. Northwest Territories Power Corp.,  NWTTC 03 (CanLII), Jan. 19, 2011].