Group slams province for delays in Dofasco air emissions case

Environment Hamilton is pushing the province to adopt new "tools" to punish air polluters more efficiently.

Case adjourned until Dec. 3 after province supplied evidence after Aug. 9 deadline

ArcelorMittal Dofasco is facing a number of environmental charges related to its smokestack emissions. (Courtesy of Environment Hamilton )

The head of a local environmental group says she's "annoyed beyond belief" that a court case in which ArcelorMittal Dofasco stands accused of breaking provincial air emissions laws has been delayed once again.

Lynda Lukasik says the delays underline the need for a better and faster process for punishing violations of air emission rules–something Environment Hamilton has been pushing  the province to create.

The Ministry of the Environment was scheduled to disclose all of the evidence in the Dofasco case at a June 4 court date, but said it wasn't ready. On that date, the adjudicator gave the provincial agency until Aug. 9 to hand over the documents to the defence team. 

However, in a hearing on Tuesday, it was revealed that the MOE didn't hand over the documents until Aug. 22, almost two weeks after the deadline. That prompted a justice of the peace to adjourn the case until Dec. 3.

"It's incredibly frustrating," said Lukasik, whose organization has been monitoring ArcelorMittal Dofasco's emissions and has pushed for the charges. "And it's making us all feel like, 'My goodness, this is for violations that happened in 2012.' "

In a rare move, the MOE laid 13 charges against ArcelorMittal Dofasco in March. The charges relate to visible thickness (opacity) of the emissions that emanated from the company's smokestacks between April and August 2012.

On Thursday, the MOE defended the time it has taken to assemble the evidence.

"This case involves a significant number of charges, and the ministry required additional time to ensure all materials were thoroughly reviewed and provided," MOE spokesperson Jennifer Hall wrote in an email to CBC Hamilton.

Related: Delay of environmental court case against Dofasco called 'ridiculous'

"The ministry has disclosed all relevant information identified to date," she said. 'We will continue to meet the court's requirements as this case proceeds."

ArcelorMittal Dofasco hasn't indicated whether it's going to fight the charges. Spokesperson Marie Verdun said her company is not commenting on the case, but noted "we are committed to continuously improving our performance through changes to operating procedures as well as ongoing capital investment in our facilities."

Demand for new penalties

The delays in the case have motivated Environment Hamilton to push the province harder to adopt a streamlined process to punish polluters who violate Ontario's air emissions laws.

In a 2012 request the to the MOE, the group asked the ministry to expand its Environmental Penalties program for spills onto land or water to include offences involving air emissions. That proces allows the province to fine, without a lengthy judicial process, polluters who illegally spill toxic substances onto land or into water.

"We need something that, in a much shorter time frame, is going to serve as a deterrent so these visual emission problems are effectively addressed," Lukasik said on Thursday.

In its response to Environment Hamilton, the MOE declined to review its Environmental Penalties program, despite declaring that the measures have "been beneficial toward achieving compliance and effective at reducing violations" in terms of the pollution on land and in water.

Lukasik says she's puzzled by the ministry's reply, given its positive tone on the Environment Penalties program.

"If your land water programs are so effective, what gives?" she said. She said she wonders why the ministry wouldn't want to have another "tool" to its arsenal to punish polluters — without having to spend months jockeying in and out of court.

In a statement to CBC Hamilton, the ministry said the province "has a strong framework of policies, acts, and regulations for managing air quality." The government, it added, working on new air quality standards for companies and has been in consultations with the public on a new "greenhouse gas emissions reduction program."

When asked about possible changes to the province's air emissions regulations, Verdun said ArcelorMittal "is supportive of fair and transparent regulations for all aspects of our business."