White Pass & Yukon Route has been ordered to pay a $100,000 fine for dumping rocks, clay and sediment into Bennett Lake and potentially harming the fish and local ecosystem.
The company pleaded guilty in court Wednesday to dumping 24 rail cars of material along the eastern shore of the lake on July 30, 2009, in contravention of the Fisheries Act.
The sediment levels in the water after the dumping were measured at nearly 100 times the recommended guidelines for fish habitat safety.
Ninety-nine thousand dollars of the fine has been earmarked for the Yukon’s fisheries protection program, and set aside for “special projects promoting the management of fisheries or fish habitat or the conservation and protection of fish or fish habitat,” according to the sentencing document.
The historic White Pass railway runs between Skagway, Alaska, and Carcross, Yukon, including a section along the eastern shore of Bennett Lake.
The rail bed in that section is subject to frequent erosion. It was particularly damaged by flooding in the Southern Lakes in 2007.
As a result, White Pass drafted a plan to repair sections of the rail bed in October 2008.
The plan included provisions that “no equipment would work in the water and no material would be placed directly into the water.” It also promised that only coarse, granular material with low silt and clay content would be used.
Regulatory agencies asked for more information about the plan, which they never received. The plan was never approved.
On July 30, 2009, two officials from the Fisheries Department and the Yukon government were travelling along the shore of Bennett Lake to look at the erosion damage to the rail bed.
They saw material being dumped into the lake from rail cars tipped sideways. Photographs taken show material falling into the water from the train, and a resulting cloud of sediment in the lake.
The officials did not directly observe any dead fish or other harm, but “the suspended sediment was sufficient to cause direct acute and chronic harmful effects to fish and other organisms,” according to the agreed statement of facts presented before the court.
The suspended sediment in the water exceeded the level that has been shown to kill Arctic grayling sac fry over a 24-hour period.
Bennett Lake supports populations of lake trout, whitefish, Arctic grayling, northern pike, chinook salmon, burbot, cisco and sculpin.
The $100,000 fine was recommended to the court jointly by the prosecution and defence counsel for White Pass.
Eugene Hretzay, president of White Pass, was present at the sentencing. He declined to speak in court, but the company’s lawyer said on his behalf that he was “horrified” that the event had occurred.
Since the incident, White Pass has worked within the law and co-ordinated with regulatory agencies on further repair work.
The maximum fine for a first offence under the Fisheries Act is $300,000.
In other cases related to environmental protection brought to the attention of the judge, the fine ranged between $40,000 and $75,000.
Prosecutor Noel Sinclair argued that the $100,000 fine was warranted because the company’s actions clearly contravened its ongoing discussion with regulatory agencies.
The fine should be large enough to be felt by the defendant, and should not amount to a licence for illegal activity or a slap on the wrist, said Sinclair.
Furthermore, the penalty is designed to “send a message to all companies that if you disregard the regulatory process, you are going to be exposed to prosecution and very, very significant fines.”
The sentencing recommendation was arrived at through extensive pre-trial conferences between Sinclair and Paul Cassidy, counsel for the defendant.
Judge Richard Thompson agreed that the sentence was “appropriate, balancing all of the interests involved, including public interest.”
The fisheries department already has proposals on the table for conservation projects that could benefit from this funding, said Sinclair. The company must pay the fine by Oct. 12.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at