This post is the latest in a series looking at corporations that break the law in BC – specifically environmental laws – often with a long history of non-compliance. Our focus today is West Fraser Mills Ltd. (West Fraser), which the Environmental Compliance BC Twitter account recently drew to our attention.
West Fraser is a Canadian forestry company that started in Quesnel, BC, and still owns a number of mills in the region. A review of BC’s Resource Management Compliance and Enforcement Database shows that, across numerous locations, West Fraser has struggled to comply with its environmental permits under the Environmental Management Act (EMA), BC’s primary law dealing with industrial pollution.
On January 5, 2023 the government posted a tweet regarding a $42,000 administrative monetary penalty (AMP) issued to West Fraser (doing business as Quesnel River Pulp) for failing to test their effluent for toxicity as required by their permit. Another tweet on January 10 concerned another AMP, this time for $14,000, issued to West Fraser’s Quesnel Plywood operation for exceeding air pollution limits from a specific piece of equipment, a veneer dryer.
But those two AMPs are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to West Fraser’s dismal compliance record, as illustrated in the graph below:
From 2018 to 2022, West Fraser was found to be out of compliance in 45 of its 68 EMA inspections, or 66% of inspections. Of these, 29 ended in advisory notices, 10 ended in warnings, and four resulted in recommendations for an AMP, so far resulting in the two AMPs discussed in this post.
The company’s long history of non-compliance and polluting air and water over many years flies in the face of West Fraser’s stated commitments to reduce pollution and protect the environment.
Because the Compliance and Enforcement Database records each inspection individually, getting a sense of what these violations mean on the ground is not immediately clear. So we’ve taken a closer look at the inspection and compliance actions by the Ministry for the two locations where the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy issued AMPs in 2022: Quesnel Plywood and Quesnel River Pulp.
West Fraser – Quesnel Plywood
Quesnel Plywood is a plywood manufacturing facility owned and operated by West Fraser and located in Quesnel.
On July 11, 2019 Ministry staff conducted an inspection of the Quesnel Plywood facility, finding that it was violating its air pollution permits for its veneer dryers (as well as water pollution permits for its sewage system). In relation to the air pollution, Quesnel Plywood’s permit allows it to discharge 115 mg/m3 of total particulate matter (TPM), but the company’s own records showed that it had been above this level every year between 2015 and 2018; in 2017, the worst year, it discharged 292.4 mg/m3.
TPM is a serious concern, because, if inhaled, it can cause serious health issues in humans, and it can cause environmental impacts across large distances and reduce visibility. This particular facility is located less than a kilometre from residential properties, including homes on the Lhtako Dene Nation Reserve. More generally, it is located in the Central Interior Air Zone, where the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy has been working for years to improve air quality, since TPM levels in the region are frequently above Canadian standards for air quality.
On January 30, 2020 the Ministry wrote to West Fraser to enquire whether the company had corrected the air pollution problem. According to the Ministry’s summary of the correspondence, the company replied on February 14, 2020 that “no corrective actions had been taken as they believed that they were in compliance with the Permit requirements.”
It appears that the company did not understand that the TPM limits referenced in the permit were enforceable. We asked West Fraser about this disagreement and a spokesperson said there have been “years of correspondence with the regulator regarding the interpretation of a uniquely worded permit requirement.”
It is only after the correspondence in February 2020 that Ministry staff wrote a report for the July 11, 2019 inspection and – on February 25, 2020 – issued a warning to the company that it was out of compliance.
The company subsequently agreed to work to correct the violation, proposing what it viewed as a solution (installing a new piece of equipment, a Regenerative Catalytic Oxidizer) on November 10, 2020. Although the Ministry initially expressed skepticism about this solution, it just recently (June 16, 2022) approved amending the permit to authorize its installation but also to decrease the allowed TPM from 115 mg/m3 to 80 mg/m3.
The Ministry issued a fine through an AMP on December 7, 2022, citing emissions in excess of the company’s; permit which had occurred on December 11, 2019 and December 16, 2020.
Quesnel Plywood being held accountable for its contravention through an AMP is a positive step. Moreover, Quesnel Plywood is now installing new pollution control technology and the authorized TPM has been reduced to 80 mg/m3.
However, the history of events raises questions about why the Province did not detect the violation earlier (it was apparently clear from the company’s annual reports from at least 2015), and why the Ministry waited more than six months after its July 2019 inspection before writing up a warning. We reached out to the government for comment, but did not receive a substantive reply.
We also contacted West Fraser asking how it reconciled its stated commitment to sustainability and reducing air pollution with its repeated non-compliance. Despite its claims about environmental performance, the company waited until the government warned it that it faced penalties before it moved to install emission-reducing technology.
The company, in reply, reiterated that “West Fraser is committed to being responsible stewards of the environment and protecting the health and safety of our employees and the public.” In relation to the Quesnel Plywood penalty, the company emphasized its disagreement with the government on the interpretation of the permit, writing that: “Ultimately, West Fraser agreed to pay a $14,000 penalty and upgraded our equipment to ensure it not only meets the regulatory expectations, but exceeds them.”
West Fraser – Quesnel River Pulp
On December 19, 2022 West Fraser received its second AMP of 2022. The $42,000 penalty involved West Fraser’s Quesnel River Pulp Company, which failed a required fish toxicity test of its effluent seven different times between June 16, 2020 and December 26, 2020.
Ministry analysis of the tests suggests that the fish toxicity may have been due to un-ionized ammonia, which can be a by-product of pulp mill processes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
Ammonia is a common cause of fish kills. However, the most common problems associated with ammonia relate to elevated concentrations affecting fish growth, gill condition, organ weights and hematocrit (Milne et al. 2000). Exposure duration and frequency strongly influence the severity of effects (Milne et al. 2000).
The Quesnel River Pulp Company effluent was flowing into White Sturgeon habitat (which is listed under the Species at Risk Act as endangered).
When we asked West Fraser about this non-compliance and its pledge to manage wildlife habitat in a sustainable manner, the company explained that the toxic effluent was the result of “an upset condition in the effluent treatment system.”
In total the Ministry’s compliance database shows 12 inspections for the Quesnel River Pulp Company starting from June 11, 2018. Of these 12 inspections, the facility was found to be in compliance for six; and these examined other (non-effluent-related) aspects of their environmental permit.
All six of the inspections relating to effluent found that they were non-compliant. Two resulted in advisories (merely noting that the violation was detected), two resulted in warnings (taking no action, but threatening future action if the problem was not rectified) and two resulted in recommendations for an AMP, ultimately leading to the AMP discussed above. With one exception, the facility apparently failed all of its toxicity tests taken between April 2014 and January 2021.
West Fraser, in answer to our questions, emphasized its efforts during that almost seven-year period:
West Fraser maintained extensive communication with the regulators throughout the event to review corrective actions being taken. The mill reduced production as it engaged industry experts from across North America to resolve the challenge as safely and efficiently as possible, and to verify that water quality in the Upper Fraser River had not been impacted.
Again, this compliance history brings up questions regarding the length of time that the Ministry chose to rely on persuasion, advisories and warnings. West Fraser insists in reply to our questions that the problem has now been fixed and “The mill’s effluent has remained compliant with its permit conditions since January 2021.” This is good news, assuming it remains true going forward, but what will the Ministry’s approach be should the problems re-emerge?
Not Determined Compliant
Our review of the West Fraser EMA inspection reports raised an additional concern. We identified a number of inspections in which Ministry staff were unable to determine whether or not West Fraser was in compliance with its permits.
These cases involved permits that require particulate or emission levels to be below a certain number, but fail to require the facility to monitor their particulate or emissions levels. This means that the government has no data from which to determine whether the facility is in compliance with the permit.
Without such data, neither the facility nor the Ministry can find out whether the facility is meeting its legal requirements (other than through ad hoc testing, which would be expensive and less reliable). This could result in undetected pollution, damaging the local environment with no accountability.
An example is an inspection of West Fraser’s WestPine MDF facility which occurred on May 30, 2022. The facility’s permit had a requirement setting the maximum rate of discharge of air contaminants from several specific pieces of equipment. During the onsite inspection, the facility informed the inspector that “the maximum discharge rate and concentration is based on the manufacturer's specifications.” Consequently, the inspector simply listed that she had “not determined” whether or not the company was in compliance for the requirements in relation to each piece of equipment.
This problem is not limited to West Fraser’s permits; we have seen other examples in other permits. The Ministry must undertake a comprehensive review of its permits, amending them to require monitoring of the specific emissions or effluent levels that they authorize, so compliance with the permit can actually be determined.
In the interests of transparency, these permits could – and should – require monitoring data to be posted publicly together with the permit, so that the public can see whether a company is meeting its legal obligations.
The industrial processes conducted by West Fraser carry with them serious environmental risks, so non-compliance with the law must be taken seriously. When we asked the company about its poor compliance rates in inspections, West Fraser chose to focus on the fact that it has had only two AMPs in recent years:
West Fraser has a responsible record of performance. Out of 68 Environmental Management Act Inspection Results over the past five years, we have received two administrative monetary penalties (AMP) and then further enhanced our environmental performance.
But, as we have seen, the company was only in compliance for 23 of those 68 inspections. West Fraser’s response may suggest that the Ministry’s advisories and warnings that do not impose penalties are taken less seriously by the company – as they are, incredibly, being offered as evidence of a responsible record. West Fraser must do better and live up to its commitment to the environment and local communities.
We note, and applaud, that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy has greater transparency and disclosure of its inspection records than other government agencies that provide records to the Natural Resources Compliance and Enforcement Database. It is this level of transparency that allows us to take a dive into the offences described in this post.
However, we also recommend that the Ministry of Environment & Climate Change improve its efforts to get companies like West Fraser Mills to comply with the law. Companies must have an incentive to take their legal responsibilities seriously, and non-compliance must be dealt with in ways that sends a message to other offenders. The Ministry’s go-slow approach may reduce the likelihood that environmental offenders will take complying with the Environmental Management Act seriously, and the Ministry needs to do better.