Those responsible for pollution will pay, says Supreme Court of Canada

By Dennis Bueckert
Oct. 30, 2003

Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - In what is being called one of the biggest victories for environmental law in Canadian history, the Supreme Court delivered a ringing endorsement Thursday of the "polluter-pay" principle.

The court ruled unanimously that former Quebec environment minister Paul Begin was fully within his powers in ordering Imperial Oil to clean up the site of a fuel depot it owned for more than half a century at Quebec City. Imperial had challenged the order, saying the minister was in a conflict of interest because assigning the cleanup to the company would save money for the provincial government.

The court rejected that argument, saying the minister had a duty to act. "The minister has the responsibility of protecting the public interest in the environment and must make his decisions in consideration of that interest."

The ruling has implications across the country, said Beatrice Olivastri of Friends of the Earth, an intervener in the case. "This decision will affect how the more than 30,000 contaminated sites in Canada will be dealt with," she said. "It strengthens the governments' ability to issue 'polluter pay' orders to ensure that polluting companies clean up their own messes."

The court judgment goes beyond the specifics of the Imperial case to underline growing public concern about the environment, suggesting this concern goes beyond the self interest of people living today. "It may also be evidence of an emerging sense of inter-generational solidarity and acknowledgment of an environmental debt to humanity and to the world of tomorrow," the court said.

Jerry DeMarco of Sierra Legal Defence Fund, which represented Friends of the Earth in the case, argued that the implications are sweeping. "We believe this will be considered one of the great environmental law victories in Canadian judicial history," he said.

Imperial Oil spokesman Richard O'Farrell said the company is disappointed with the decision but will comply with the cleanup order. "We believed in our case. We feel we had a view that had merit and it got heard and a decision was made. We will comply."

O'Farrell said he did not think the decision would have far-reaching implications. "The challenge was on the basis that the minister was in a conflict situation and I would think that's fairly specific fact-based circumstances." Imperial had argued that Begin was in a conflict of interest because the provincial government was simultaneously being sued by people whose houses on the site had lost much of their value. The minister could not be considered impartial because he had an interest in reducing provincial costs arising from the lawsuits, Imperial argued.

The Quebec government argued that the conflict is inherent in the position of an environment minister and cannot be avoided. Olivastri said Imperial is currently involved in a similar controversial legal proceeding over alleged lead contamination of a residential development at Lynnview Ridge in Calgary.

O'Farrell said Imperial has a policy for dealing with contaminated sites and has always respected government regulations, but expectations have changed over the years.