On December 6, 2007, Mr. Justice Michel Boissonneault of the Court of Québec (District of Roberval) handed down his decision in Procureur général c. Transport Doucet & Fils Mistassini inc. (in French only),[1] dismissing the argument that there exists a threshold below which a person is exempted from reporting an accidental release of hazardous materials to the Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks.

The judgment in question relates to the application and interpretation of section 9 of the Regulation respecting hazardous materials,[2] which reads as follows:

9. Any person who accidentally releases a hazardous material into the environment shall immediately:

(1) stop the spill;

(2) inform the Minister; and

(3) recover the hazardous material and remove all contaminated material that is not cleaned or treated on site.

[…]

The judgment thus makes it clear that any accidental release of hazardous materials into the environment must be reported to the Minister, regardless of the amount released.

Mr. Justice Boissonneault dismissed the defence that the quantity was too small to justify notifying the Minister.

Section 9 of the Regulation respecting hazardous materials fleshes out the requirement under section 21 of the Environment Quality Act[3] which applies generally to any accidental release of contaminants into the environment. The Court distinguished between “contaminants”, which are “likely to alter the quality of the environment”, and “hazardous materials”, which present a much higher risk of harm to the environment.

The Court concluded that the de minimis rule (the law does not concern itself with trifles) cannot readily be applied to accidental spills of hazardous materials.

The Court specifically rejected the argument that the threshold of 200 litres for a spill of petroleum products, which triggers an obligation to notify the local police (in Quebec) pursuant to section 8.1 of the federal Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations,[4] constitutes a reference point. The Court held that the 200 litre threshold does not apply in the case of an environmental statute that falls within the constitutional jurisdiction of Quebec.

The Court also dismissed the defence of reasonable error as to the facts invoked by the defendant, which claimed to be applying the environmental policy of another company on whose behalf it was acting. Although that environmental policy was part of an ISO 14 001 certified environment management system, it stipulated a reporting threshold of 20 litres for accidental spills of petroleum products.

The Court pointed out that the company environmental policy in question did not relieve the person responsible for a spill of the obligation to report the spill to the Minister and that it was not reasonable to think that compliance with such a policy could do so.

Although in this case, it was not possible to accurately determine the quantity spilled, it must have been substantial since environmental rehabilitation required the removal of 100 cubic metres of contaminated soil at a cost of $45,607. Since this was the defendant’s first offence, the company was ordered to pay a fine of $8,000 and judicial costs of $2,000.