Canada: Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Quebec Government Issues Emergency Environmental Decontamination Order

Following the July 6 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, which triggered several explosions and a massive fire, a large quantity of crude oil was spilled into the environment. Quebec's Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks, exercising his powers under s 114.1 of the Environment Quality Act,1 has now issued an environmental clean-up and decontamination order to four corporations: Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Canada Co., Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ltd., Western Petroleum Company and World Fuel Services Corporation.

The order issued on July 29, 2013, is an emergency order, given without prior notice, which took effect immediately it was served. This type of order is infrequent and its use in this case is certainly attributable to the severity of the accident. One of the reasons given by the minister for proceeding in this manner was that the contractors hired by the railway company to decontaminate the environment have not been paid.

According to the order, Western Petroleum Company and World Fuel Services Corporation are the owners of the crude oil spilled.

Since the corporations to which the ministerial order was addressed did not receive prior notice,2 according to s 118.1.1 of the Environment Quality Act, they may present observations to the minister within ten (10) days so that the order can be reviewed.

The corporations concerned also have thirty (30) days to contest the order before the Administrative Tribunal of Québec. However, the order will remain in effect in the interim, unless, upon a motion heard and judged by preference, a member of the Tribunal orders otherwise by reason of urgency or of the risk of serious and irreparable harm. It remains to be seen if the order will be contested. In a press release dated July 31, 2013, the Minister indicated that the companies' response was not considered adequate in the short term. The press release also mentioned that the Minister can have the work done at the companies' expense if they do not comply fully with the order.

A particularity of the order made under s 114.1 is that it can be directed to the owner of the contaminants as well as the person who had custody and control of the contaminants before the spill occurred. Section 114.1 is the only provision of the Environment Quality Act that imputes legal liability to the owner of contaminants that are accidentally spilled.

The ministerial order essentially requires the corporations to: a) recover the oil and other contaminants discharged into the environment following the derailment on July 6, 2013, in downtown Lac-Mégantic, including the oil and other contaminants that were spilled in the town, into the Chaudière river, along its banks and in any other area where they may have migrated; b) prevent the spread of the spilled oil; c) comply with the instructions given by the minister or any designated person for the recovery of the oil and the decontamination of the environment; d) provide all information about the execution of the work ordered to be done; e) submit a comprehensive action plan, together with a timetable, including environmental characterization work, clean-up and decontamination measures, measures to mitigate the environmental effects and environmental monitoring measures; and f) confirm to the minister, within 24 hours of service of the order, that they intend to comply with the order.

These measures indicate the Quebec government's clear intention to exercise its powers under the Environment Quality Act to force the owner of the spilled oil and the corporation which had custody and control of it to take responsibility for the environmental clean-up and decontamination work resulting from the July 6 accident.


1 CLRQ c Q-2.

2 Section 5, Act respecting administrative justice, CLRQ c J-3.

Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP

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