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Algoma Steel charged for alleged wastewater discharge to St. Marys River

Both charges stem from an incident that occurred on Oct. 18, 2019
2021-06-13 Algoma Steel File BC (1)
Algoma Steel Inc. file photo.

Algoma Steel is currently facing two provincial offence charges related to an alleged release of untreated wastewater into the St. Marys River. On February 9, 2022, a first hearing took place at Sault Ste. Marie’s provincial offences courtroom. The matter has been adjourned to June 8, 2022. 

According to court documents, the company faces one charge under the Ontario Water Resources Act and another under the Environmental Protection Act.

Both charges stem from an incident that occurred on Oct. 18, 2019. The former relates to an untreated wastewater discharge that “may impair the quality” of the St. Marys River.

The latter relates to the same discharge failing what’s referred to as an “acute lethality test,” in which a population of rainbow trout is used to gauge the toxicity of wastewater that enters the St. Mary’s River. None of the allegations have been proven in court but the charges are based upon evidence collected by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP). 

According to provincial regulations, all facilities regulated by the Ontario Water Resources Act and Environmental Protection Act are required to report their exceedances of pollution limits that apply to their air emissions and wastewater discharges.

Ontario’s Environmental Compliance Report from 2019 shows four separate exceedances for Algoma Steel on October 18, 2019. They include “acute lethality – trout,” and the following three pollutants: cyanide, phenol, and total ammonia nitrogen. The report also compares regulated pollutant limits and measurements from the discharge in 2019.

The measurement of cyanide was 165% of the regulated limit. Ontario’s Annual Environmental Penalty Report for 2019 shows that Algoma Steel was twice issued fines for wastewater exceedances including cyanide that year. The exceedances of phenol and total ammonia nitrogen were approximately 37 and five times their regulated limits, respectively.  

The Environmental Protection Act also stipulates that facilities responsible for discharges that are “abnormal in quality or quantity” must notify relevant municipalities. Sault Ste. Mayor, Christian Provenzano, confirmed via email that he was not made aware of the discharge in 2019. Similarly, City of Sault Ste. Marie Chief Administrative Officer, Malcolm White, said: “to the best of [his] knowledge the City wasn’t notified of the incident.” 

The MECP did not respond to a specific question about whether or not additional charges may be laid as a result of the municipality not being notified by the company.

When asked about what led to the alleged discharge and whether or not Algoma Steel notified the municipality, the company’s Manager of Communications and Branding, Brenda Stenta, said: “As a matter of practice, we do not comment on matters that are currently before the courts.”

The St. Marys River is considered an ‘area of concern’ by various levels of government and local stakeholders that collaborate on environmental mitigation efforts in the Great Lakes region.

In 1987, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States officially designated 43 areas of concern. The responsibility for the St. Marys River area is shared bi-nationally, assisted by the Bi-national Public Advisory Council’s Remedial Action Plan

According to the Canadian government, the St. Marys River received an official designation because “a review of available data indicated that water quality and environmental health were severely degraded.” Primary sources of degradation historically included industrial pollution and untreated municipal wastewater, among other pollutants.

The Remedial Action Plan for the St. Marys River notes that Algoma Steel has taken steps to mitigate its impact on water quality beginning in the early 1980s, including “the creation of a main water filtration plant, decommissioning of settling ponds, installation of a biological treatment facility and toxicity control system, as well as improving overall water re-use efficiency by 90%.”

Algoma Steel will host an environmental open house on Monday, February 28th at the Northern Community Centre at 556 Goulais Avenue between the hours of 4:00 and 7:30pm. The company is expected to share more details about provincial regulatory applications that will apply during its ongoing transition towards ‘greener’ steel produced by electric arc furnaces.