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Ontario municipalities worry about ruling on road salt

A recent court ruling that awarded an Ontario farmer more than $100,000 for damages he claimed were caused by the local government's use of road salt has raised the ire of municipalities across the province.

Judge sides with farmer who says road salt harmed his crops and lowered his property value.

A group representing more than 400 municipalities across Ontario said the judge failed to take into account the local government's responsibilities to keep the roads safe. (Jon Castell/CBC)

A recent court ruling that awarded an Ontario farmer more than $100,000 for damages he claimed were caused by the local government's use of road salt has raised the ire of municipalities across the province.

Joseph and Evelyn Steadman had sued the County of Lambton claiming road salt had damaged their crops and lowered the value of their farmland.

But a group representing more than 400 municipalities across Ontario said Thursday that the judge failed to take into account the local government's responsibilities.

"Where we really get into an impossible situation is that we have a mandatory responsibility to maintain our roads in a safe condition through the winter time," said Tom Bateman with the Ontario Good Roads Association.

The Steadmans said their farmland near Sarnia withered since the late 1990s, affecting his wheat, soya and hay crop yields. The couple said this was a direct result of the salt from the roads surrounding the property that left parts of their land "white with salt."

County considering appeal

The county said there was no proof road salt caused the problems.

Justice Thomas Carey sided with the Steadmans, writing in his decision that "the dispersion of road salt by the defendant ... was the cause of damage from about 1999 to the present, to their land and to their soya and wheat crop."

The Lambton county clerk said they do not agree with the judge's ruling.

"Our heads are spinning on that," said David Cribbs. "The law requires us to perform winter maintenance and we have now officially been punished for conducting winter maintenance."

Cribbs said the county is considering an appeal, but in the meanwhile it will be business as usual.

"We have no choice but to continue salting and sanding our roads, but we have to keep this judgement in the back of our minds."

Cribbs also said he has been inundated with calls from municipalities from around Ontario expressing concern about the court decision.

No viable alternative

Bateman said there is currently no viable alternative to road salt that is better for the environment.

Merrin Macrae, an associate professor in geography and environmental impact at the University of Waterloo, said road salt negatively affects the environment, from water systems to soil and crops.

The problem with salt, she said, is that it can accumulate over time and "can reduce the way water and salt are made available to the plant," thereby limiting its growth.

A five-year study on the effect of road salt conducted by Environment Canada concluded in 2012 that "road salts pose a risk to plants, animals and the aquatic environment."

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