Kootenay-River-Teck-Elk-Valley-mines-selenium-53-scaled

If Canada’s environmental fines don’t match the crimes, industrial pollution will continue

Some of the country's biggest polluters are multibillion-dollar companies. Limited fines may not be enough to stop them, but public shaming and sanctions could
This article was originally published on The Conversation Canada.

Some of Canada’s biggest employers have a poor track record of abiding by environmental laws. When laws are broken corporate leaders don’t go to prison; instead, the company is fined. But the fines are rarely severe enough to scare them into changing their ways, let alone enough to make companies repair environmental damage or build a cleaner future.

Everyone has seen the headlines over the years: coal company Teck fined $60 million for contaminating rivers in southeastern B.C., Manitoba paper mill fined $1 million for leaking toxin into Saskatchewan River and Husky fined $3.8 million for 2016 oil spill into North Saskatchewan River. The combined value of these three companies — Teck, Kraft Paper and Cenovus (Husky’s parent corporation) — is over $75 billion.

Monetary penalties for breaking environmental laws continue to rise. Yet, many companies are failing to maintain compliance and pollution continues to flow. This is especially true in the case of water.

Industrial pollution risks the health of waters — affecting Indigenous Rights, tourism and fisheries

Canada has an abundance of renewable surface water and groundwater — a precious resource that often gets taken for granted. Despite persistent challenges with drinking water insecurity and climate-induced water stress, water access in Canada is a privilege that many other regions of the world do not have.

River fishing guide Andres Gonzalez casts a fly rod on the Elk River
A river fishing guide casts a fly rod on the Elk River in Fernie, B.C., where Teck’s coal mines have faced numerous environmental infractions. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Water pollution from natural resource extraction can hinder economic drivers like tourism and fisheries, impair Indigenous Rights, harm species at risk of extinction and perpetuate environmental racism.

How fines are issued for environmental infractions in Canada

There are two main options for fining big polluters: administrative penalties or court charges.

Administrative penalties proceed more quickly and have historically been used for relatively small fines. Several provinces including British Columbia and Ontario have recently upped maximum penalties to $750,000 and $200,000 respectively for corporations, depending on what law is broken.

Court charges are more common when federal law — such as the Fisheries Act — is also involved. Court convictions carry more social weight, allow for much bigger fines and threaten jail time. However, they can also take years and spending time in prison for harming the environment is an exceedingly rare outcome.

Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.
Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

Flexibility in fine amounts and bogged down court systems have resulted in administrative penalties increasingly being favoured by regulators. For example, these penalties were nearly 20 times more frequent than court charges for industrial pollution under the B.C. Environmental Management Act from 2017 to 2022.

For many businesses, a hefty one-off fine for breaking an environmental law is an unsettling wake-up call. Responsible employers reflect on this seriously and take tangible steps to reduce the chance of their operations harming the environment in the future.

But for wealthy repeat offenders, fines may be treated as nothing more than the cost of doing business. This is where the problem lies, and some of Canada’s richest corporations prove it.

Repeat water polluters face big fines, but their profits are much, much bigger

Teck Resources has been fined again, and again and again for contaminating rivers and harming endangered fish in the Elk Valley, B.C., with toxic mining run-off from five nearby coal projects. The company has also been fined several times for toxic spills and leaks into the Columbia River from its nearby zinc and lead smelter.

The cost of these infractions has come to $83.1 million in combined fines. While this may seem a hefty sum, it equals just two per cent of Teck’s $3.9 billion dollar profits in 2023 alone.

In Quebec, Rio Tinto has been fined less than a million dollars on multiple occasions for illegal acid discharges into rivers from its smelters and refineries. The company’s market cap is $104 billion.

Oil giant Suncor Energy — $9 billion in 2023 earnings — has a history of repeatedly polluting the Athabasca River with sediment and sewage, in addition to oil spills and toxic releases during seabed drilling in offshore Newfoundland. None of Suncor’s fines related to water contamination has ever exceeded $1 million.

Scroll through any of these big polluters’ websites and you’ll find elegantly worded commitments to sustainability and caring for the environment. But actions speak louder than words, and no amount of greenwashing lingo can erase the smears from a record of chronic non-compliance with environmental laws.

Serious policy changes to better protect water — Canada’s most valuable natural resource — from repeat environmental offenders are warranted.

grasses and rubble on the edges of a narrow Hazeltine Creek in B.C. after the Mount Polley mine spill flooded the waterway with toxic mine tailings
Hazeltine Creek, once a stream running through dense forest, was stripped bare by a flood of toxic tailings from the Mount Polley mine spill. The miner owner (Imperial Metals) was never fined for the incident and the cleanup will cost Canadian taxpayers $40 million. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Potential paths forward to curb environmental damage through repercussions

Laws work to protect the environment when they are strongly written and enforced. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in the United States in 1990 pushed polluters to innovate and resulted in a 60 per cent drop in air emissions over the following 20 years despite a 33 per cent increase in manufacturing output.

Mimicking the successful regulatory overhauls of the past is no guarantee of success today. Still, there are several paths forward to reduce environmental degradation from natural resource extraction that are worth considering:

  1. A new tier should be added to environmental laws with no maximum penalty, only applying to companies with a current market cap over a certain threshold — perhaps a billion dollars. This new penalty class would meaningfully punish the wealthiest of polluters without infringing on responsible actors.
  2. Court prosecutions should be favoured over administrative penalties because they allow for bigger fines and posting to the environmental “offenders registries” which attract more public attention. Threats of public shaming and heftier penalties may spur environmental action from companies looking to avoid hurting shareholder confidence.
  3. Stop-work orders and revoking operating permits through sanctions are rarely used but should occur more often. Recent efforts, like forcing Coastal GasLink to stop work due to water contamination issues, removes the legal authority from a polluter and forces clean up before shovels resume digging.

The importance of healthy water systems to Canadians cannot be overstated — it is time to get serious about how this resource is protected.

Costly environmental cleanups are a worldwide problem: the Baltimore bridge collapse, for example

It’s too early to know the environmental ramifications of the Baltimore bridge collapse. What is clear, however, is that while corporate entities look to limit their own liabilities, the American public will most likely be left to pay for the cleanup.

This most recent disaster is not unlike the $40 million in cleanup costs sitting on Canadian taxpayers from a 2014 tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley mine that spilled 24 million cubic metres of toxic waste into Fraser River salmon habitat. The company (Imperial Metals) was never fined for the incident.

From Baltimore to the Fraser River, financial penalties to those who damage our environments remain pitifully low. Only by holding polluters truly to account can we effectively work to end environmental pollution both in Canada and around the world.

We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

Western Canada is on fire — again

In Alberta, parts of Fort McMurray are evacuating again. In B.C., more than 4,000 residents of Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation were...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Thousands of members make The Narwhal’s independent journalism possible. Will you help power our work in 2024?
Will you help power our journalism in 2024?
That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
Overlay Image