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Details of Algoma Steel's oil spill emerge

Valve left open by a contractor caused oil tank at steel plant to overflow, according to transcript of recent arbitration hearing
Crews lay a boom in the water at the scene of an oil spill on the St. Marys River on June 9, 2022.

A transcript of an arbitration hearing from earlier this year is providing insight into how Algoma Steel managed to hemorrhage more than 20,000 litres of oil from its Sault Ste. Marie steel plant — with a portion entering the St. Mary’s River — last summer. 

Emergency crews worked to contain the June 9 spill of Morgoil, a lubricating oil for heavy machinery, prompting Algoma Public Health to warn residents downstream of the steel plant to not consume, swim or bathe in water drawn from the river — a vital waterway linking Lake Huron and Lake Superior.  

“The Community of Echo Bay’s water treatment plant was shut down for 18 days as a result of the spill, ultimately requiring drinking water to be trucked in,” said the transcript. “The cost of remediation to the company was significant.”

The incident is being investigated by Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and the Department of the Environment and Climate Change Canada, which may result in charges against the Sault Ste. Marie steelmaker.  

“The spill occurred because the oil pump could be switched on and operated without supervision,” the transcript said. “Consequently, when a contractor left a valve open somewhere in the network of pipes, one of the tanks overflowed, causing the spill.”  

Algoma Steel implemented new procedures for filling the oil tanks the next day, according to the transcript.

Two people are now required to fill the oil tanks; one to continually press the button to let the oil flow, with the other standing by the operating tanks to indicate when they are full.

While the U.S. Coast Guard reported that more than 20,000 litres of oil entered the St. Marys River, both the transcript of the arbitration hearing and information from MECP suggest that only a "small quantity" of the oil made its way into the waterway.

Algoma Steel estimated last year that the amount of oil discharged into the river was in the ballpark of 1,000 litres to 1,250 litres. 

Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler informed SooToday via email that MECP is “continuing its assessment of the spill and will follow up with Algoma Steel to confirm that appropriate measures have been put in place to prevent similar events in the future.”

“Providing additional details at this point would be inappropriate,” Wheeler said.

The Department of the Environment and Climate Change turned down a request for information made by SooToday, suggesting that Ontario has taken the lead on the investigation.

The recent arbitration hearing which provided new information on the spill took place so that United Steelworkers Local 2251 could challenge Algoma Steel after the company fired an employee for violating the new protocols surrounding the filling of the oil tanks that were established in the wake of the massive spill. 

The steelmaker alleged that a toothpick was used to jam the pump start button for the oil tanks — an allegation that has been denied by the employee. According to the transcript, the worker “indicated he forgot about the new protocol and did not call another person to assist him in filling the tank.”  

The union wanted the company to hold off on the firing until its grievance was heard. The request was ultimately shot down by the arbitrator during the hearing.

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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