UBC ammonia spill

The University of British Columbia, which takes pride in promoting environmental responsibility and sustainability, is appealing a conviction for dumping fish-killing ammonia into a tributary of the Fraser River and, if the conviction is upheld, UBC will also appeal the $1.2 million fine that was designated for habitat restoration, arguing for a much-reduced fine.

The appeal has been heard in B.C. Supreme Court by Justice Neena Sharma, but no ruling has been made.

UBC spokesman Matthew Ramsey said, as the matter has not yet been settled, he cannot answer questions from The Narwhal on the reason for the appeal, who made the decision, the amount it is costing in legal fees and whether the case is being funded by public money.

“We are not commenting because the case is before the courts,” he said.

Last year the university was fined $1.15 million for releasing ammonia-laden water into a storm sewer and ditch connected to Booming Ground Creek, a fish-bearing stream that drains into the Fraser Estuary, in violation of the Fisheries Act. The university was fined a further $50,000 for failing to report the incident, which killed 70 fish, in a timely manner.

UBC did not report the spill to Environment Canada until three days later and argued at the Provincial Court trial that the delay amounted to a “technical breach.”

However, Justice Bonnie Craig, in her reasons for judgment, wrote: “Even this report was not initiated by UBC. It was a response to a request by Environment Canada for a report of the incident.”

“There was no evidence that UBC had a system in place to ensure employees understood their obligations to report under the Fisheries Act and followed through with those obligations,” she wrote.

CIMCO Refrigeration, a contractor working with UBC staff on the refrigeration plant at UBC’s Thunderbird Arena, pleaded guilty to depositing a deleterious substance into water that may be frequented by fish and was separately fined $800,000.

The university was ordered to conduct five years of electronic monitoring of storm-water quality in the area where the ammonia release occurred and the names of both the university and CIMCO have been added to the federal environmental offenders registry.

The ammonia-containing solution was released after Michael Paulson, a CIMCO mechanic, and Jeff Harley, chief engineer at the arena, worked on the ice rink refrigeration system. The discharge was described by Harley as “heavy-duty ammonia vapour going down the storm drain for about 15 to 30 minutes. Yet he permitted it to continue,” Craig wrote.

Harley also turned off ammonia alarms in the arena so they would not go off while the system was being worked on while there were members of the public in the arena.

“Mr. Harley told Mr. Paulson he did not want him to discharge the solution in the sanitary drain in the plant because he was concerned with ammonia vapours setting off the alarms in the arena. As a result, Mr. Paulson discharged the solution into a storm sewer drain located outside the building,” Craig wrote.

During the Provincial Court trial lawyers for UBC argued that Harley’s role in releasing the ammonia was “a mistake or a lapse in judgement.”

Three years later CIMCO was involved in a fatal ammonia leak at a municipal hockey rink in Fernie that killed two arena workers and a repairman.

The ammonia from the UBC arena killed fish in the creek, which runs through Pacific Spirit Park, and the strong smell of ammonia was reported by passersby.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation Lower Fraser River connectivity salmon

A team with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation surveys juvenile salmon in the Lower Fraser where the organization has been improving fish access to Sturgeon Bank, a brackish marsh important for young salmon transitioning to salt water. Photo: Alex Harris / Raincoast

Fines would help in much-needed restoration in Lower Fraser

All the fines resulting from the incident are intended to go to the federal government’s Environmental Damages Fund and are expected to be used to help organizations involved in Fraser River fish habitat restoration, such as Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Rivershed Society of B.C. and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

But UBC is fighting the conviction and seeking a reduction in fines.

The decision to appeal is puzzling, Fin Donnelly, Rivershed Society founder and chair, told The Narwhal.

“I don’t know why they are appealing. I think the judge was very clear in his ruling, saying that the award needs to go to restoration and remediation — although you can never really fully remediate what happens in terms of the damage it caused to the environment,” he said.

“Obviously we know that, especially where this happened — in the Lower Fraser, in the estuary — there’s a significant threat to the ecosystem, so looking at restoration is one way to make amends,” said Donnelly, former NDP MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam.

The uncertain fate of the lower Fraser River’s last salmon island strongholds

UBC has very publicly focused on becoming a sustainable university, Donnelly noted.

“So I would encourage them to aspire to what they are trying to teach to their students and to the world. I think we can all improve our practices,” he said.

A change that has been made since the 2014 ammonia dump is that staff at UBC’s athletics department have undergone extensive training in procedures to prevent pollution entering storm water drains and sanitary sewers.

The procedure requires approval from UBC’s Environment Management Services before any effluent is discharged down a storm drain and was in place before the ammonia incident, but had not been implemented in the athletics department.

“Had this procedure been in place in the arena on Sept. 12, 2014, it would have prevented the discharge of the ammonia solution into the storm drain,” Craig wrote.

The discharge was into one of the most heavily polluted areas of the Fraser River system, where huge amounts of habitat has been lost and the ammonia release “certainly didn’t help,” said Donnelly, who is heading an effort to raise $500 million over 10 years for habitat restoration in the watershed.

Donnelly said his organization has already secured a philanthropic contribution of $50 million and is proposing the province contribute $150 million and the federal government $300 million to the effort spread out over the next decade.

The Rivershed Society of B.C. and the Pacific Salmon Foundation have talked to representatives from the Environmental Damages Fund and put in a proposal for a restoration project in the estuary, with an education proponent, but have not yet heard back, Donnelly said.

How scientists are giving Fraser River salmon a fresh chance

David Scott, a biologist with Raincoast Conservation and a PhD student at UBC, said Raincoast is specifically eyeing the fines for potential restoration projects in the Fraser.

“If they do pay the fine it should go into the Environmental Damages Fund and then be available for restoration projects in the vicinity where the offence occurred. … I’m not sure of the grounds for appealing, but it’s a pretty big fine … we could definitely use it,” Scott said.

The creek where the ammonia killed fish meets the the north arm of the Fraser just before the river meets the ocean and Raincoast is interested in doing restoration in that area, Scott said.

“There’s been a lot of loss of habitat and impacts to connectivity because, in that area of the river, there are a couple of jetties and causeways that really disconnect all the habitats,” he said.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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