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Whitecourt, Woodlands County plead guilty, fined $100K over landfill environmental offences

File photo of a landfill.
File photo of a landfill. Global

The Town of Whitecourt and Woodlands County have pleaded guilty to environmental offences at the local landfill, the Alberta government announced Friday, and were fined a combined $100,000 that will be used for two creative sentencing projects.

The two municipalities are the operators of the Whitecourt Regional Solid Waste Management Authority.

The penalties under the province’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act resulted from charges pertaining to environmental upgrades initiated at the Whitecourt Regional Landfill in the fall of 2016.

READ MORE: Town of Whitecourt, Woodlands County accused of environmental offences at landfill

In an agreed statement of facts, the town and county admitted to starting landfill alterations without first receiving permission.

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The town said the work, which began in 2015, was meant to extend the lifespan and capacity of the facility by 39 years.

At that time, the town was waiting for Alberta Environment to approve an amendment to construction plans for its landfill, which was near capacity due to an unexpectedly high volume of waste the previous year.

According to the agreed statement of facts, the town proceeded with construction work due to a sense of urgency.

However, the work did not match its original approved plans but rather the amendment it was waiting for Alberta Environment to approve.

The amendment, proposed by an environmental consulting firm, changed the design and operating philosophy in order to extend the life of the existing facility.

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In the summer of 2016, the Whitecourt director of infrastructure contacted Alberta Environment several times to ask for approval of the amended plans be expedited in light of the regional landfill being almost full.

The agreed statement of facts detailed several back-and-forth communications, with the town being told by Alberta Environment’s director of approvals that “we will work with you.”

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“Unfortunately, neither party clarified exactly what they understood that phrase to mean,” the agreed statement of facts said.

In the fall of 2016, the landfill put out an invitation for construction companies to bid on the expansion and a contractor was picked for the $1.167 project, even through the amendment approval was still up in the air.

“We don’t have approvals to proceed but will run out of space … And construction weather if we delay,” director of infrastructure said in a September email to board that ran the landfill.

“We have kept [A]lberta [E]nvironment informed throughout the design and tendering process and hope that they will continue to work with us to complete the construction this year.”

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Hundreds of trucks roll through Whitecourt pro-pipeline convoy
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The amended approval had been delayed because Alberta Environment deemed it incomplete in August 2016, because it was submitted without engineered drawings as part of the application.

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The project, which the town said will be completed in six phases, includes the development of new cells – which is where the trash is stored within the landfill – and a new leachate collection system, which collects waste water that has filtered through the layers of the landfill so contaminants don’t get into the groundwater.

According to HowStuffWorks, the waste water (leachate) is typically acidic, containing dissolved contaminants such as organic and inorganic chemicals, metals, biological waste products of decomposition.

A graphic from howstuffworks.com, with cells being labelled I and J, and leachate collection pipe labelled as D.
A graphic from howstuffworks.com, with cells being labelled I and J, and leachate collection pipe labelled as D. Credit: howstuffworks.com

In the end, the amendment was granted and construction was allowed to proceed, but because of the unpermitted work, the two municipalities were fined $100,000.

“From Sept. 23-26, 2016, to Nov. 22-28, 2016, the landfill deviated from the design plan and specifications that they had previously submitted under the approval,” stated the facts.

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The province said the Town of Whitecourt and Woodlands County each pleaded guilty to one count under the province’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

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The remaining charges — 17 against Whitecourt and 11 against the county — were withdrawn.

The Town of Whitecourt was fined $69,630 and Woodlands County fined $30,370, with the amounts reflecting each municipality’s stake in the landfill.

The province said funds from the conviction will be used for two creative sentencing projects, which the town said it and the county proposed as a direct public benefit.

One portion of the sentence will see $80,000 diverted to study how poplar trees aid in absorbing and cleaning waste-tainted water (leachate) from the waste cells.

Whitecourt said the innovative phytoremediation research project being conducted by Innotech Alberta Inc. will impact future enhancements at all Alberta landfills.

InnoTech will be researching whether the planting of trees and vegetation on or around landfill cells can be used to reduce the amount of landfill leachate from the cells, the town said.

The intention is to incorporate the results of the research into the Whitecourt Regional Landfill’s operations.

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A portion of the $100,000 sentence will also see $15,000 set aside for training landfill operators on leachate management.

The remaining $5,000 will be paid as fines for violating the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

The Town of Whitecourt said in a statement that after identifying and resolving the issues which led to the charges, the landfill operators worked with Alberta Environment to amend the project and successfully completed phase one of the upgrade project.