Ontario faces charges over arsenic leak
Moira River poisoned by abandoned site, lobby groups say
Tom Spears The Ottawa Citizen
Ontario’s Environment Ministry faces pollution charges over arsenic leaking from an Eastern Ontario gold mine. And the brewing court fight will pit a corps of former ministry staffers against their ex-employer.
Arsenic is still leaking out of the abandoned Deloro gold mine 45 kilometres north of Belleville.
A new citizens’ group, the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, has teamed up with an environmental law firm, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, to lay eight water pollution charges. These groups allege the ministry has not done enough to keep arsenic from poisoning the Moira River.
They claim the site leaked 3.27 tonnes of arsenic in a single year, and also leaks other toxic metals such as cobalt, nickel, zinc and copper. At one point, they say, the concentration of arsenic in sediment is 4,800 times greater than the level the ministry says causes “severe biological effects” on wildlife.
The Moira River drains into Lake Ontario at Belleville.
The Environment Ministry took over the site 18 years ago, when a former owner, a construction company, abandoned it. But the promised site cleanup hasn’t been completed.
Now, a Belleville woman acting for the two private environment groups has laid eight charges under the federal Fisheries Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act.
These are the main water pollution laws in Ontario.
The case is expected to be tried in the new year in a Belleville court.
But the case is causing a stir in the environment community because of who did the investigating.
One of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund’s lawyers, Doug Chapman, is a former Environment Ministry prosecutor who retired from the government a few years ago.
Another lawyer in the case used to act as a ministry prosecutor on a contract basis, though he wasn’t on the ministry’s staff.
One of the Environmental Bureau of Investigation’s advisers on the case is Dave Kerr, who used to head the ministry’s enforcement branch office in Kingston.
And a former ministry biologist was also part of the private investigation. He’ll be the chief scientific witness for the prosecution.
These four people all bring the ministry’s own training into use against it.
“To do successful prosecutions, you need a minibus full of people with special skills that government and police have but citizens’ groups don’t have,” said spokesman Tom Adams. Mr. Adams works for Energy Probe, a Toronto group that helped set up the Environmental Bureau of Investigation.
“One really key point for us is these are experienced and trained law enforcement officials,” he said.
The former ministry staffers generally felt their former employer wasn’t pushing hard enough on pollution cases, especially those where the ministry is directly involved, he said.
These include emissions from sewage treatment plants owned and run by the ministry.
“There’s a conflict of interest … It’s particularly acute where government is both the polluter and the enforcer of environmental laws.”
Asked what it feels like to charge his former employer, Mr. Chapman said, “Well, it really doesn’t matter. We just felt that this place needed some action. These are two streams that are being destroyed.”
The new organization plans to enforce pollution laws on its own wherever the province is slow to act, Mr. Adams said.
There’s a section in the Fisheries Act that allows courts to hand part of any fines to the person or group that made the complaint, he said.
Mr. Chapman’s organization hopes it may get such an award to help cover itsWO costs.
At the same time, the ministry is working with the Environmental Bureau of Investigation on charges in a pollution case in Kingston.
The private organization first laid charges against the City of Kingston for leakage from an abandoned dump in the Cataraqui River, and the ministry later joined that prosecution and added charges of it own.