An application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of
Canada ("SCC") has been filed in the Inco case by Port
Colborne, Ontario property owners. After initially being awarded
$36 million for diminished property values due to nickel deposits
in their soils, the claimants' win was reversed late last year
by the Ontario Court of Appeal1.
The SCC leave application raises several issues said to be of
public importance including:
1. What is the threshold for nuisance liability in the context
of environmental contamination? In particular, is stigma a
recognizable head of damage to land under Canadian law?
2. How should common law nuisance liability be considered in
relation to statutory standards for contamination?
A key question before the SCC is the level at which chemical
airborne emissions, leading to soil depositions, become actionable
by a property owner. Does there need to be a risk to human health?
Is interference with property use necessary?
Property Owners Won at Trial
Property owners' soils in Port Colborne contain nickel
particles after years of emissions from Inco's nickel refinery,
ending in 1984.
The Ministry of Environment ("MOE") guidelines re
nickel in the late 1990s were 200 parts per million (ppm) based on
levels at which deposits could conceivably affect the most
sensitive plant life. A 1998 MOE report based on 1991 samplings
showed some properties significantly exceeded the guideline levels
but MOE reported it was unlikely those nickel levels posed any risk
to human health.
In March 2002, MOE released more test results showing some
nickel levels higher than previously reported. Inco was ordered to
remediate 25 properties where soil samples yielded nickel levels
above 8,000 ppm, an intervention level said to have been developed
to ensure all nickel exposures did not exceed a value that is
"well below any potential health risk".
Increased publicity raised concerns in the community about
nickel levels. At trial, the adverse publicity was alleged to have
affected appreciation in land values.
The trial judge held Inco liable in nuisance and under Rylands
v. Fletcher strict liability principles for that loss. Damages were
assessed at $36 million. Seven thousand potential claimants were
assigned to damages recovery pools.
The award was made despite the fact there is no allegation Inco
operated the refinery unlawfully or negligently; Inco apparently
complied with all environmental and regulatory schemes. Historical
emission levels did not contravene regulations. Nor did the
plaintiffs allege that the presence of nickel on their properties
posed any threat to human health or any adverse impact on the use
of the properties. The core claim quite simply is that property
values had not increased at the same rate as comparable properties
in other small cities nearby.
Based on conflicting expert evidence, the trial judge held that
comparable properties in Welland Ontario had increased in value
4.35% more than Port Colborne properties during a ten-year period
from 1999 to 2008. The difference yielded an average loss of $4,514
per property, resulting in the overall damages award of $36
Court of Appeal Overturns Award
Inco's appeal was allowed. The property owners' action
was dismissed by the Court of Appeal. Inco was found to be liable
neither under private nuisance nor the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.
And even if elements of either cause of action had been
established, the appeal court held that claimants had failed to
prove any damages.
The Court of Appeal said that the trial judge erred in finding
that the nickel particles in soil caused "actual, substantial,
physical" damage to the claimants' lands. Mere chemical
alteration in the content of soil, without more, does not amount to
compensable physical harm or damage to the property.
This central finding is the one claimants now seek to have
reviewed and overturned by the SCC.
SCC Leave Decision Expected by June 2012
Even if the SCC hears the case and accepts the core argument,
the claimants face other significant hurdles including limitation
period questions raised but not resolved by the Court of Appeal and
damage assessment issues. The Court of Appeal, for example, had
serious reservations about the expert methodologies used to
determine whether the nickel had any impact at all on property
The SCC's decision on the leave application is expected be
released by June 2012.
1. Smith v. Inco Limited (2011), 107 O.R. (3d) 321
(C.A.); 2011 ONCA 628.
Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change continues to roll out its Climate Change Action Plan with its proposed GHG guide for projects that are subject to the province's Environmental Assessment Act.
The Imperial Oil refinery pled guilty to one offence for discharging a contaminant, coker stabilizer, thermocracked gas, into the natural environment causing an adverse effect and was fined $650,000...
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