March hares and hatters both have reputations as “mad.” I’m not sure what gets into March hares, but the madness of hat makers in years gone by was their exposure to mercury. The heavy metal was used in the manufacture of felt hats 150 years ago.
Today we know about mercury poisoning and avoid exposure to it. In high enough doses it causes damage to a person’s brain, lungs and kidneys. Vision, hearing and speech, disturbed sensation and lack of co-ordination is often observed in affected individuals. Exposure to mercury and its compounds is responsible for several diseases.
So when a mercury leak occurred at Teck Resources‘ metallurgical compound in Trail, BC, it was understandably a cause for concern. But the company’s prompt response and follow-up actions can serve as a lesson for all. Here’s what happened.
On Oct. 8, 2010, Teck publically announced that there had been a discharge of a mercury-containing solution four weeks earlier, on Sept. 13, and that the solution was likely to have exceeded permitted amounts of mercury. The leak occurred while work was underway to reconfigure the pipe to the effluent treatment plant. Teck reassured nearby residents that the appropriate authorities had been informed and an investigation was underway.
A check of the websites for Environment Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment and the Provincial Emergency Program turned up no indications that the incident was serious enough to warrant prosecution.
Instead, after the lengthy joint investigation under the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Management Act, the Conservation Officer Service and Environment Canada’s Environmental Enforcement Branch recommended a community justice forum process as a method to resolve the incident. Such a forum uses trained facilitators to bring together the responsible party and those affected by an incident to agree on how to resolve the situation.
Teck arranged an two-day community justice forum on May 10-11. Participants included representatives of the company, employees, community and environmental groups. The company took the opportunity to accept full responsibility for the spills, and expressed its regret that the incident occurred.
At the end of the forum Teck agreed to the following: 1) pay $325,000 in total to various local environmental groups; 2) mark the potential entry points for its effluent into the Columbia River; 3) complete a review of all process sumps to ensure piping is competent; 4) and establish procedures to ensure effluent does not enter the sanitary sewer system.
Moreover, Teck has already taken a number of steps to prevent similar incidents in the future. These included such initiatives as launching the $5.5-million, second phase effluent spill reduction program, retraining employees, modifying various processes, inspecting all the sumps, and revising procedures.
Paying fines to the provincial and federal agencies would have been easier than organizing and participating in the community justice forum. But the benefits to the community would have been negligible. Those affected by the spill would have been hard pressed to say the money spent on fines in any way made up for the effects of the spill on their lives.
Teck is to be commended for participating in the successful community justice forum. Not only did the community get direct answers and solutions to its problems, but the company now has a better understanding of what is important to its neighbours. And when local environmental organizations spend the money Teck gives them, everyone will see tangible benefits