Athabasca County attended Provincial court in Athabasca on June 10, 2019, to answer to six charges that were laid against it under The Canada Wildlife Act following a 2017 construction project.
Athabasca County entered a guilty plea to one count of carrying on a commercial or industrial activity and was fined $300,000. All remaining charges were dismissed, and an Agreed Statement of Facts between Her Majesty the Queen and Athabasca County was read in court.
Environment and Climate Change Canada opened an investigation in the fall of 2017, following an Athabasca County construction project along Township Road 652 adjacent to the Meanook National Wildlife Area. A search warrant was executed by Environment Canada officials on February 15, 2018, where several officers occupied the County offices, resulting in the County being forced to close for business that day. The investigation took more than a year, and charges were levied against the County on March 12, 2019.
Athabasca County has accepted full responsibility for its actions from the beginning. The County took steps to get an agreement with the leaseholder, University of Alberta, but did not obtain the required permit from the Federal government in order to proceed onto the federally protected lands during the construction project. This was a mistake made during the pre-construction process, and once realized, Athabasca County took all steps to rectify the mistake and cooperated fully with federal authorities throughout the investigation. Environment Canada ordered remediation of the site, and the County complied fully, completing the required work in the fall of 2018.
While a $300,000 fine would appear severe for the County’s actions and the size of land impacted, approximately 6 acres, the option to plead guilty and pay the fine appeared to outweigh the risk of even more tax dollars being spent in going through a lengthy trial with an uncertain outcome. The minimum fine for each count the County was charged with was $100,000, with the maximum being $4,000,000 for each day that the construction occurred.
Athabasca County was also able to negotiate a sentencing order with the Crown that directed the fine to be paid to the Environmental Damages Fund, with a recommendation that “all or part of the fine be paid to Athabasca University” for purposes related to protecting, conserving or restoring the environment, pursuant to section 13.13(2) of The Canada Wildlife Act.
While Athabasca County regrets this incident and the impact to its taxpayers, we are pleased the funds will be able to be directed to Athabasca University for its ongoing environmental research in the region.