Any type of spill, discharge or release of hazardous substances can trigger many requirements under the environmental laws, including those relating to reporting and clean up. Ensuring that the company’s response to spills is effective and in compliance with regulatory requirements is a key responsibility of EHS coordinators. Here are answers to 11 of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about spills to help you meet this challenge.
Defining Our Terms
The environmental laws use the terms “spill,” “release” and “discharge.” Because these terms are all defined similarly, we’ll use the term “spill” throughout. The laws also use the terms “substances,” “contaminants” and “pollutants” for the materials covered by the spill reporting requirements. We’ll use the term “substances” throughout for such materials.
11 SPILL RESPONSE FAQs
Q Is My Company Required to Have a Spill Response Plan?
A The environmental laws may not specifically require companies to have spill response plans but you should have one anyway. The spill reporting and response requirements can be complicated. And a spill can cause chaos. So you don’t want to figure out how to comply with these requirements on the fly while you’re in the midst of dealing with the spill itself. Having a spill response plan that spells out the procedures to be followed in the event of a spill ensures that the company is prepared to properly deal with spills and satisfy all environmental requirements. In contrast, lack of preparation for dealing with a spill is likely to cost the company.
Example: While a fisherman was refuelling his boat from diesel fuel tanks on his truck, fuel started to leak from a crack in a pipe. He wrapped a jacket around the crack but it didn’t stop the leak. He told his crew to clean up the wharf; he sprayed dish detergent on the fuel in the harbour. He then left without reporting the spill to the harbour master or anyone else. The fisherman pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act by releasing diesel fuel into a fish habitat and failing to report a spill. The court fined him $15,000, which he appealed. The appeals court upheld the fines as reasonable, criticizing the fisherman for being ill-prepared to respond effectively to fuel oil spills and comply with the reporting and other spill-related requirements [R. v. Bolt].
Q Who Has a Duty to Report Spills?
A Most jurisdictions require you to report a spill if you:
> Own or have possession, charge, management or control over the substance spilled; or
> Cause, allow, contribute to or are responsible for the spill.
Q Which Spills Must Be Reported?
A Requirements vary by jurisdiction but generally require reporting of unauthorized releases of:
> Substances that may cause, are causing or have caused an “adverse effect”—that is, damage—to the environment;
> Designated substances, that is, substances specifically listed in the spill reporting requirements; and
> Substances in amounts, concentrations, levels or rates of release in excess of those set by regulation or by permit.
Q Do Small Spills Have to Be Reported?
A In BC, NL, NT, NU, NS, ON and YT, the reporting requirements for certain kinds of spills include threshold amounts of a substance that must be spilled to trigger these requirements. So in those jurisdictions and for those kinds of spills, you only need to report spills over the threshold amounts.
But for other kinds of spills and in the rest of Canada, you must report all spills covered by your jurisdiction’s environmental laws—even if you think those spills are too small to harm the environment. Failing to report what you consider a small spill can lead to liability for not only pollution but also violation of the reporting requirements.
Example: A Québec company didn’t report a petroleum spill and was charged with violating the reporting requirements. The company argued that the quantity spilled was too small to justify notifying the MOE. The court disagreed, ruling that any accidental release of hazardous materials into the environment must be reported, regardless of the amount released. In other words, there was no threshold below which companies are exempted from the reporting requirements. Even small spills could have serious consequences. In this case, although the exact amount spilled here couldn’t be determined, 100 cubic metres of contaminated soil had to be removed as a result, noted the court. Thus, even if the spill was “small,” its impact wasn’t [Procureur general c. Transport Doucet & Fils Mistassini Inc.].
Q When Must a Spill Be Reported?
A A quick response to a spill is essential to prevent or minimize harm to the environment. Thus, the environmental laws generally require you to report a spill immediately, as soon as possible under the circumstances or as soon as you know or should know about the spill.
Bottom line: Promptly report spills. Any delay—no matter how short—can lead to liability.
Example: A steel mill spilled a significant amount of oil into a storm sewer that discharged into a harbour. As a result, a large number of fish as well as more than 100 ducks and other waterfowl died. Even though the mill reported the spill to the Ontario MOE within four hours, it was fined for failing to report the spill in a timely way [R. v. Dofasco Inc.].
Q Where Should a Spill Be Reported?
A You must report the spill to the appropriate government environmental agency. Many jurisdictions have spill reporting hotlines for this purpose. But your reporting duties don’t end there. Most jurisdictions also require you to report spills to:
> The owner of the substance or person who controls, manages, cares or is responsible for the substance (if that person isn’t you);
> The owners of any property that may be directly affected by the spill; and
> Anyone else who may be directly affected by the spill.
In addition, some spills require reporting under both federal and provincial/territorial law. In those situations, you may have to report it to two government agencies. But to avoid such duplication, the federal Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans recently signed agreements with the governments of AB, BC, MB, NT, ON, SK and YT in which one designated organization for each province and territory will receive spill reports on behalf of Environment Canada. So in these jurisdictions, one report to the appropriate local agency will satisfy the federal reporting requirements, too.
Q What Information Must Be Included in a Spill Report ?
A The information required in a spill report varies by jurisdiction. And some environmental laws require detailed information in this report. But the basic information most spill reports require includes:
> Your name and phone number and the name and number of your company;
> The location and time of the spill;
> A description of the circumstances that lead up the spill;
> The type and amount of substance spilled;
> A description of the spill site and the surrounding area; and
> Any actions taken or proposed to address the spill.
Q Must a Spill Be Reported if It’s Already Been Cleaned up?
A Yes. Cleaning up a spill doesn’t eliminate the need to report it. You should report all spills covered by your jurisdiction’s reporting requirements, regardless of any remediation efforts you’ve taken. The government needs to know a spill occurred so that it can determine whether the environment was harmed and any environmental laws were violated. It also needs to ensure that your cleanup was adequate. Deciding not to report a spill because you’ve already cleaned it up can cost your company.
Example: An Ontario company delivered a pesticide to a farm supply retailer. While unloading the truck, the driver noticed that the pesticide had spilled onto the ground. Staff from both companies contained and cleaned the spill area. But neither company reported it to the MOE. The companies pleaded guilty to having control of a pollutant that was spilled and failing to promptly notify the MOE. The delivery company was fined $75,000 and the retailer $25,000 [R. v. Scotland Agromart Ltd. and Summerville Custom Spraying Ltd.].
Q To Whom Must Spills Involving Worker Injuries Be Reported?
A An incident that causes a spill and also results in injuries to workers may trigger two types of reporting requirements:
> Environmental reporting requirements as to the spill; and
> OHS reporting requirements as to the injury.
Don’t assume that reporting the incident to a government official responsible for workplace safety will satisfy the environmental reporting duties or vice versa; it doesn’t. It’s important that you comply with both reporting requirements.
Example: A chemical company accidentally discharged chlorine gas from a piping system that vented under a section of the facility’s roof on which a worker was working. The gas enveloped the worker, blinding and choking him. He had to be hospitalized. The company reported the incident and the worker’s injuries to the workers’ comp board as required by OHS law. But it didn’t report the emission to environmental authorities. The company was convicted of failing to report the discharge of a contaminant. There are many incidents in which both the OHS and environmental laws apply, said the court. And the officials that administer both sets of laws have a legitimate interest in knowing about such incidents. Although the only victim here was a worker, environmental officials still needed to know about the emission of a substantial quantity of chlorine gas into the open air. Thus, the company had a duty to report this incident to not only workplace safety but also environmental officials, concluded the court [R. v. Dow Chemical Canada Inc.].
Q: How Quickly Should the Spill Be Cleaned Up?
A: Don’t delay when responding to a spill. Cleaning up the spill quickly will not only eliminate or reduce any damage to the environment but also help your company avoid being charged with an environmental violation—or result in lesser charges. And how fast you responded to the spill is a key factor that courts consider in sentencing for an environmental offence.
Example: A Yukon barge owner arranged for an company to refill 45 drums located on the deck of his barge. The company’s worker ran a fuel line from his truck to the barge and started filling the drums with diesel fuel. While he was doing something else, the fuel valve fell out of the drum’s bunghole and started spraying fuel around the barge deck. The worker shut off the fuel line. But by then, the barge deck was completely soaked with fuel, which was running off into the river. The company and barge owner were charged with Fisheries Act violations, including failing to act as soon as possible in the circumstances to remedy a spill.
The court convicted the defendants of discharging a hazardous substance into water frequented by fish but dismissed the cleanup charge. It explained that the issue wasn’t whether the cleanup was done as soon as possible but whether it was undertaken as soon as possible under all of the circumstances. Here, the spill was entirely cleaned up within two to three hours. In fact, when environmental officials arrived on the scene, there was no sign of the spill. And there was no evidence that the time it took to complete the cleanup was unreasonable given the circumstances. In sentencing the company and barge owner on the discharge violation, the court noted that the barge owner was responsible for the cleanup. And that fact “reflected in his favour,” said the court. So it fined the barge owner $750 and the company $1,000 [R v. Stretch].
Q Is the Company Liable if Workers Don’t Tell Anyone about a Spill?
A Yes. Remember—a company must report a spill it knows or should know about. So it’s important to train workers on who in the company they should report spills to, such as their supervisor or the EHS coordinator. Ignorance of a spill won’t protect the company from liability.
Example: Workers dropped a pallet containing a toxic cleaning agent, crushing two containers and causing a spill. They diluted the spilled solution with water and flushed the contaminated water down a storm drain. But they didn’t tell management about the spill. A few days later, a Department of Fisheries biologist noticed dead fish floating in the creek where the storm drain discharged. He asked the manager about the spill, who honestly said that he didn’t know anything about it. The company reported the spill late and was fined for failing to report the spill and train its workers on how to respond to spills properly [R. v. Agrifoods International Co-operative Ltd.].
Ensuring the company’s compliance with all requirements relating to spills is usually the EHS coordinator’s responsibility. Failing to comply with the reporting, remediation and other requirements can damage the environment and endanger wildlife, workers and the general public. Plus, it can lead to environmental violations—and hefty fines. So it’s important that you periodically review spill response basics so you can help your company avoid these consequences.
SHOW YOUR LAWYER
Procureur general c. Transport Doucet & Fils Mistassini Inc.,  QCCQ 12761 (CanLII), Dec. 6, 2007
R. v. Agrifoods International Co-operative Ltd.,  B.C.J. No. 2320, Oct. 8, 1993
R. v. Bolt,  NLTD 20 (CanLII), Feb. 4, 2011
R. v. Dofasco Inc., Ontario Govt. News Release, Feb. 16, 2005
R. v. Dow Chemical Canada Inc.,  CanLII 5685 (ON C.A.), March 14, 2000
R. v. Scotland Agromart Ltd. and Summerville Custom Spraying Ltd., ON Govt. News Release, March 21, 2011
R v. Stretch,  Y.J. No. 101, Sept. 15, 2002