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Coal mine fined $4.5-million for 2013 spill that contaminated Alberta river system

Highway 63 passes over the Athabasca river near Fort McKay, Alberta on Monday, June 16, 2014.

AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

A coal mining company has been handed almost $4.5 million in federal and provincial penalties for a spill from its tailings pond that fouled tributaries feeding the Athabasca River in Alberta.

An estimated 670 million litres of waste water gushed out of a broken earth berm at the Obed Mountain mine near Hinton, Alta., on Oct. 31, 2013.

Prairie Mines & Royalty — formerly known as Coal Valley Resources — pleaded guilty Friday in Hinton provincial court to two federal counts of violating the Fisheries Act and one charge under the provincial Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

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The federal charges resulted in $3.5 million in penalties.

About $1.1 million is to be put into a trust to create a fish habitat and recovery research fund. Another $2.1 million is to go to the Environmental Damages Fund.

Prairie Mines was also ordered to pay $925,000 for the provincial conviction. That includes $363,000 to fund a dam safety research project related to coal mine water storage and $370,000 for an indigenous youth environmental education project.

Erin Eacott, a spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, said on a conference call that the judge made clear the company is responsible to clean up damage.

"The judge ordered the accused to rehabilitate approximately five kilometres of the Upper Apetowun Creek, which is the creek that was most impacted by the release," she said.

"The other part of the order was that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had to hire experts to help assess the impact of the significant release on fish habitat and what rehabilitation needs on the creek would be. The court ordered over $600,000 to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to reimburse for those costs."

Westmoreland Coal, which now owns the mine, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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In a news release, the Alberta Energy Regulator reported that the coal mine, about 30 kilometres east of Hinton in the foothills of western Alberta, is being decommissioned and reclaimed by its owner.

The regulator said it is regularly inspecting the mine site and the area that was damaged by the 2013 release.

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