Dust, noise, pollution — Be good to thy neighbour

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Industrial polluters — even those that comply with emissions regulations — can be found liable and forced to pay significant damages if their activities are  found to be a nuisance to nearby residents.

This week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that St. Lawrence Cement (SLC), a subsidiary of the world’s second-biggest cement maker Holcim Ltd., was responsible for inconveniences its smoke and dust caused caused nearby residents in the Quebec City area. I have highlighted sections of a Globe and Mail Article, which outlines this finding.

What does this mean for your operations? Is following the letter of the law no longer enough? Strictly speaking, the answer is no, since the court concluded that there are two ways to determine civil liability in respect of neighbourhood disturbances in Quebec law, wrote Mr. Justice Louis LeBel and Madam Justice Marie Deschamps.  The first, under common rules of civil liability, is based on a person’s wrongful conduct, while the second is a regime of no?fault liability related to neighbourhood disturbances under art. 976 of the Civil Code of Québec.

Before the case reached the Supreme Court, the trial court had allowed the class action launched by local citizens, on the basis of that second scheme of no-fault liability related to neighbourhood disturbances exists under art. 976 of the Civil Code of Québec, which prohibits owners of land from forcing their neighbours to suffer abnormal or excessive annoyances.

“No-fault liability also reinforces the application of the polluter-pay principle,” the Court wrote.

It’s not so much that the ruling adds more environmental legal requirements to industrial activity.  Rather it is reiterating the rule that neighbours are only expected to “suffer the normal neighbourhood annoyances that are not beyond the limit of tolerance they owe each other, according to the nature or location of their land or local custom”.  In other words, your property rights do not give you a free hand to do what you wish at the expense of those who are impacted by your activities.

There’s no question this ruling makes stakeholder engagement and community involvement all the more important for industry. Perhaps the most important item to take away from this decision is that it shows how effective a tool class actions are becoming in disputes involving the environment.  The sooner industry understands community expectation, the sooner they will save time, money and potentially, lawsuits.