Chief Ronald Kreutzer of the Fort McMurray First Nation filed a $16 million class action lawsuit against an Alberta coal company after it leaked 670 million litres of wastewater into the Athabasca River.
The suit was filed in response to a contaminated water and sediment spill which took place on Oct. 31, 2013. Wastewater from the Obed Mountain Mine near Hinton – operated by Coal Valley Resources Inc. (CVRI) – flowed out of a broken tailing pond, through creeks connected to the Athabasca River.
CVR operated the mine as a subsidiary of Sherritt International. Following the spill, Westmoreland Canada Holding obtained a controlling interest in CVRI. All three companies are named in the lawsuit.
According to legal counsel for the First Nation, the lawsuit is intended for anyone who lives near, or has used, the Athabasca River, Plante Creek, Apetowun Creek or Peace-Athabasca Delta since the spill took place.
“The case is really on behalf of anybody who has been affected by the spill,” Edmonton lawyer Rick Mallat said. “A lot of times it will be the First Nations, groups and individual members that have been affected in some way and it could also include farmers who may have been affected or even just recreation users who couldn’t use the river to fish or boat on for a period of time.”
The lawsuit is only the most recent legal action taken regarding the spill. In October, Coal Valley Resources and Sherritt International were hit with six charges each, filed under Alberta’s Environmental Protection Act, Public Lands Act and Water Act, adding up to a maximum of about $2 million in potential fines.
“It’s an important case from an environmental perspective, because it relates to one of the largest spills ever in North America,” Mallat said. “The allegation is that there was an improper containment procedure that happened in terms of the tailing pond and that the contaminated water should not have been allowed to spill into the river and it should have been prevented on a reasonable basis.”
In the weeks following the spill, the province issued advisories warning people living along the impacted waterways to avoid drawing from the contaminated water.
Subsequent downstream monitoring efforts have found elevated levels of Arsenic, uranium and selenium in concentrations “below levels expected to lead to a hazard.”