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Algoma Steel slapped with two new environmental charges for 2022 oil spill

A total of seven 'significant' spills have occurred on Algoma Steel property in the past five years, says a spokesperson for Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks
Local environmentalist Selva Rasaiah stands across the St. Marys River from Algoma Steel. He has made requests through Freedom of Information that are painting a clearer picture on a number of spills that have occurred at the plant over the past five years.

As new environmental charges were recently laid against Algoma Steel for a series of chemical spills that occurred in June of 2022, a local environmentalist says he has uncovered additional spills by the company that have not yet been reported to the public through the media.

The two most recent charges were laid by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) against Algoma Steel on May 28 in response to the spill of gear oil into the St. Marys River on June 9, 2022. Court documents allege the offences were in contrary of Sec. 107.1 of the Ontario Water Resources Act and Sec. 186.1 of the Environmental Protection Act.

That spill was widely reported in the media and resulted in the community of Echo Bay cutting off its drinking water intake in the St. Marys River for 18 days and prompted Algoma Public Health to warn residents downstream of the spill to not consume, swim or bathe in water drawn from the river.

In the Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services report from the time of that spill, it was noted an estimate of upwards of 40,000 litres of Morgoil, a lubricating oil for heavy machinery, went into a large basin and leaked into the river. Algoma Steel later estimated that the actual amount of oil discharged into the river was in the ballpark of 1,000 to 1,250 litres. 

Those charges follow two in April that were laid in response to a spill on June 17, 2022, which wasn’t known to SooToday at the time it occurred and was not reported until those charges were made public last month.

A cleanup report about the June 17, 2022 spill released to Rasaiah by the MECP shows the incident was called in by Algoma Steel staff at 7:17 p.m., more than 13 hours after the occurrence time listed in the report. It further says an estimated 50,000 litres of "slurry sump overflow" made its way into the St. Marys River, but that it was "mostly clean" because there was no steelmaking operations at the time. 

Although 2.5 parts per million of ammonia was found in the testing during the aftermath of that spill, the ministry said in its report that the amount found was within limits and noted the health and environmental consequences of the spill were low.

20220616 Echo Bay Mayor Lynne Watson KA
Echo Bay mayor Lynn Watson holds up a notice being distributed to residents being asked to conserve water after an oil spill on Algoma Steel property forced the municipality to turn off its water intake on the St. Marys River for 18 days in June of 2022. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday

None of the four environmental charges currently faced by Algoma Steel have been tested in court.

Through a series of freedom of information requests to the City of Sault Ste. Marie, MECP and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, local environmentalist Selva Rasaiah is piecing together a clearer picture of the number of spills that are occurring at the plant — a number that is higher than what is generally known to the residents of Sault Ste. Marie and surrounding communities.

A former contract worker at the plant, Rasaiah regularly makes requests for public information related to Algoma Steel in an effort to monitor emissions and other environmental effects from the plant. He said the documents he requests are not just for keeping the steel plant in check, but also to ensure the ministry is doing its job in enforcing the rules put in place for polluters.

”Algoma Steel seems to have spills in pairs in one month, with at least one spill being kept quiet,” said Rasaiah. ”It becomes confusing when there is so many close to one another.”

For example, he points to the most recent known incident, a pipe collapse that occurred last winter at Algoma Steel. 

Documents received by Rasaiah about the January incident through Freedom of Information legislation revealed there was not only a chemical spill on the day of the collapse, but also an earlier spill on the previous day.

At the same time, the information Rasaiah was getting from the city only mentioned the spill on the 20th. 

Rasaiah said he is concerned that the company is not meeting its obligations when it comes to reporting the spills.

"I was pretty shocked when it came back and said there was a January 19 and a January 20 spill, so I thought this can't be right," said Rasaiah. "I was shocked because after the spills in June of 2022, what was the lesson learned?"

MECP spokesperson Gary Wheeler told SooToday on Monday that both the Jan. 19 and 20 spills were from an unknown amount of flushing liquor but only the first spill flowed to site drains, making its way to the main water filter plant that discharges to the St. Marys River.

“[That] Spill [was] contained that morning by blocking flow to site drains with berms,” said Wheeler.

Last October, Algoma Steel pleaded guilty to charges related to a Oct. 18, 2019 chemical spill when unknown amount of flushing liquor to ground, flowed to site drains then to the main water filter plant that discharges to the St Marys River. The company was fined $150,000 plus a 25 per cent victim surcharge. 

That followed another spill that occurred two weeks earlier on Oct. 1, in which about 220 litres of wash oil spilled to the ground, flowing into the boat slip. No charges were laid in that incident.

In addition to those spills, Wheeler said there was a seventh significant spill that occurred on Nov. 28, 2022, when an unknown amount of contact cooling water spilled to the ground from an overflow of the blast furnace discharge slurry sump to the boat slip. The MESC said the spill was contained and samples taken showed no exceedences.

Reached for comment on the spills, Algoma Steel spokesperson Laura Devoni told SooToday the company cares deeply about the environment, especially the St. Marys River.

”We take spills seriously as well as our obligation to report. Some of the matters you list have been settled, others are before the court and those more recent are being reviewed,” Devoni said in an email. “We are driving continuous improvement across our business to mitigate risks of spills, learn from historical incidents and make investments to support best practices, ensure regulatory compliance and enhance our responsible environmental stewardship.”

Wheeler said the ministry has laid "several" charges against Algoma Steel, including some that led to convictions in 2010 and 2016 under the Environmental Protection Act, as well as convictions in 2007 and 2023 under the Ontario Water Resources Act. Along with those convictions came a total of $425,000 in fines against the company.

”The Ministry takes all spills and threats to the environment very seriously,” said Wheeler.

Rasaiah said he hears some concern that, as Algoma Steel is working toward lowering emissions through its massive electric arc furnace project, being too strict on them while they make that transition is counterproductive. He disagrees with that argument.

"Environmental fines are not going to bankrupt the company, but what they do is they bring attention to the issue," said Rasaiah. "It's the attention that they don't like. They just don't want to be in the media. They don't want to have to tell their shareholders. They don't want that on their record."

Even if Algoma Steel's electric arc furnace project does everything that is promised in terms of reducing emissions from the plant, said Rasaiah, the spills will still continue unless the company learns from its mistakes and takes them more seriously.

"A lot of [spills] are from the treatment plant or the plate mill, so those will always be there," said Rasaiah. "Even in the process of electric arc steelmaking, you're going to have similar issues because they're always going to be cooling and they're going to have to discharge something."

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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