Coal tar company fined $325K after harmful vapour leak in Hamilton

Ruetgers Canada Inc. has been fined more than $400,000, after a spill created a cloud of harmful yellow-green vapour that affected workers and evacuated nearby businesses.

Ruetgers Canada Inc. plead guilty after incident in December 2017

A cloud of yellowish smoke billowed out from Ruetgers Canada in Hamilton after a coal tar pitch spill at the company in December 2017. (Andrew Collins)

A coal tar processing company in Hamilton has been fined more than $400,000, after a spill created a cloud of harmful yellow-green vapour that affected workers and evacuated nearby businesses.

Ruetgers Canada Inc. plead guilty in court Thursday to violating Ontario's Environmental Protection Act for discharging a contaminant in December, 2017.

An open flange spilled coal tar pitch, creating a vapour that can cause skin irritation and respiratory effects, according to an agreed statement of facts.

Workers had to be rescued by crane and six people had physical symptoms. Neighbouring businesses were evacuated or sheltered themselves.

The company, located on Strathearne Ave just north of Nikola Tesla Blvd., has to pay $325,000, plus a 25 per cent victim surcharge, within one year — resulting in total fines of more than $406,000.

The fine "reflects the seriousness of the discharge," said Crown counsel Alicia Gordon-Fagan, who believes this will be a deterrent for other companies.

Outside court Thursday morning, Crown counsel Alicia Gordon-Fagan said the fine reflects the seriousness of what happened. (Laura Howells/CBC)

"I hope it will make people pay attention," said Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, who has been following the case.

Lukasic said she's glad to see a polluter pay.

"We hope it will make the company take things very seriously moving forward and it will make other companies take notice too," said Lukasik outside court.

Contracted workers didn't have work safe permit

On the day of the incident, contracted workers had unbolted flanges on a coal tar pitch line without a safe work permit, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Once Ruetgers realized what was happening, staff told the contractor to bolt the flanges back together, "but did not take action to immediately isolate the line."

So the flange was not closed right away. The overseeing Ruetgers worker was addressing another issue, and the contracted workers were told to take a break until a crane lift was finished.

A Hamilton firefighter escorts a worker onto an ambulance after a coal tar pitch spill incident at Ruetgers Canada in December. (Andrew Collins)

While the contractors were on break, the open flange started spilling a "significant amount" of coal tar pitch, which created a "large cloud of yellow-green vapour."

Emergency services came to the facility at 725 Strathearne Ave. and some people were assessed in hospital.

There were no permanent injuries, the statement said.

After court, Ruetgers director of corporate communications Alan Chapple said in a statement, the company was happy the court accepted the deal reached with the ministry and noted that the company had implemented some remedial measures.

"Our company remains strongly committed to environmental stewardship and workplace safety. We will continue to be a good corporate citizen and a good place for our employees to work," he said in the statement.

'Pretty significant gaps'

Lukasik said she was pleased to see the company was taking "swift steps.

"It sounds like there were some pretty significant gaps in the safety protocol," she said, after hearing details in court.

Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, says she hopes to see more polluters get fined. She said the community needs to stay vigilant. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The incident put workers at risk, as well as people outside the plant, Lukasic said — and "it didn't take much for a pretty significant impact."

Lukasik said she hopes this never happens again and there needs to be more fines levelled against polluters to serve as a deterrent, she said.

"We want these companies to clean up and become sustainable operators in our community," she said.

Company faced multiple charges'

The company was in Hamilton court Thursday morning, facing nine charges from the Ministry of Environment and three from the Ministry of Labour.

All but one of the charges were withdrawn.

The fine took all the charges into consideration and reflected their totality, said Gordon-Fagan.

Ruetgers, which is registered in Nova Scotia, plead guilty to violating section 14(1) of the Environmental Protection Act, involving discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment.

The Hamilton facility processes coal tar to make derivative products. 

"As a community we need to stay ever vigilant and track these sorts of issues," said Lukasic.

Lukasik, however, said she also worries about smaller, day-to-day issues.

The court process is long; she hopes the ministry can develop faster tools to provide a financial "slap on the wrist."

"But certainly $325,000 is nothing to sneeze at," she said.

About the Author

Laura Howells is a journalist from St. John's who is now working in Toronto and Hamilton. You can reach her at laura.howells@cbc.ca.