Sarnia is home to many things, but leading the pack for notoriety is its infamous Chemical Valley — approximately 40 per cent of Canada’s total chemical industry is in its 25km radius. Not only does the area house nearly 60 oil refineries and factories, it also has a history of leaks dating back to the 1980s with often minimal (or no) consequences for polluters.
Adding to the area’s history, in 2013, a pipeline carrying diesel fuel from refineries in Chemical Valley to distribution terminals across Ontario ruptured. Some of the 35,000 litres of diesel fuel that spilled from the pipeline flowed once again into the St. Clair River, which provides drinking water for roughly 170,000 people in the area. Unfortunately, after investigating the spill, though, provincial authorities decided not to prosecute the pipeline operator under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act (EPA) or technical standards and safety laws.
After reporting countless pollution incidents in the Sarnia area with few consequences for polluters, and then again watching the province fail to hold Chemical Valley’s recent pipeline polluter accountable in a meaningful way, former Sarnia resident Zak Nicholls decided enough was enough.
Using the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights, Zak and Ecojustice scientist Elaine MacDonald submitted a request asking the government to review the Environmental Protection Act’s current rules on environmental penalties. And we are happy to say that in October we learned that the government will be undertaking that review.
Environmental penalties are a tool available to provincial authorities under the Environmental Protection Act. In some circumstances, a company can be ordered to pay a monetary environmental penalty for pollution either instead of or as well as being prosecuted under the EPA. The penalty amount can range up to $100,000 per day. Importantly, an environmental penalty imposes absolute liability on the polluter – even if they have taken reasonable steps to prevent the pollution, they can be required to pay the penalty. As such, environmental penalties are designed to deter pollution and prevent fines for pollution from simply being considered a “cost of doing business.” They are meant to make sure that polluters pay.
The government introduced environmental penalties as an environmental compliance and enforcement tool in 2005, following a number of serious spills in the Sarnia region that polluted the St. Clair River and closed local drinking water plant intakes.
However, the government can only impose an environmental penalty on certain types of polluters (for example, polluters in the electric power generation, iron and steel, and petroleum refining sectors). Currently, the government cannot impose an environmental penalty on a pipeline operator, which leaves a significant gap in its compliance toolkit.
The 2013 diesel pipeline spill in Sarnia is a recent example of pollution from a provincially regulated transmission pipeline, but it is not an isolated incident. Data from Ontario’s Spills Action Centre shows that there were 174 liquid petroleum product spills from provincial pipelines between 2007 and 2014.
Expanding the rules to allow the government to impose environmental penalties for these spills will provide the government with a tool to address pollution faster and more effectively and will make sure that polluters pay and that these spills don’t become a mere cost of doing business.