Imperial Oil Limited was recently convicted of breaching s.14 of Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act (“EPA”) for permitting the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment. Imperial Oil, who pled guilty to the offence, was sentenced to pay $650,000.00, in addition to a $162,500 victim fine surcharge, by the Court.
The contaminant in question was coker stabilizer thermocracked gas (“coker gas”), which escaped from a coker unit at Imperial Oil’s refinery plant during the routine testing of a pressure control valve. According to the Agreed Statement of Facts submitted to the Court (“ASF”), 750 kilograms of coker gas were discharged from the plant, sprinkling nearby vehicles and buildings with coker gas condensation droplets. The ASF revealed that the escaped coker gas caused three nearby contractors to experience temporary burning of eyes and difficulty breathing. In addition, three neighbouring businesses were temporarily interrupted as a result of the emission.
Interestingly, the coker gas emission did not exceed any of the limits prescribed by Ontario Regulation 419/05 for the chemical compounds released. Moreover, Imperial Oil acted swiftly to cease the emissions and immediately reported the incident to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (now the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks) (“MOE”).
Despite these mitigating factors, Imperial Oil was nevertheless sentenced to pay the onerous fine, the explanation for which lies in s. 14 of the EPA, which reads:
“…a person shall not discharge a contaminant or cause or permit the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment, if the discharge causes or may cause an adverse effect.” [emphasis added].”
The effect of s.14 is that businesses and individuals who are otherwise in compliance with Ministry regulations can nevertheless be charged by the MOE if a contaminant they discharge causes an “adverse effect”. The EPA employs a broad definition of “adverse effect”, describing it as one or more of:
(a) impairment of the quality of the natural environment for any use that can be made of it,
(b) injury or damage to property or to plant or animal life,
(c) harm or material discomfort to any person,
(d) an adverse effect on the health of any person,
(e) impairment of the safety of any person,
(f) rendering any property or plant or animal life unfit for human use,
(g) loss of enjoyment of normal use of property, and
(h) interference with the normal conduct of business..
Consequently, even though Imperial Oil’s discharge of the coker gas did not exceed Ministry regulations, it was liable under s.14 because the discharge had caused an adverse effect pursuant to the EPA. This case demonstrates the power of s.14 and serves as cautionary tale for the prevention of adverse effects when dealing with contaminants.