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Ontario municipalities could see ramifications from precedent-setting Superior Court decision over use of road salt
Jan. 21, 2015
By Dan Brown, Barbara Simpson

A court ruling that awarded more than $100,000 to a Lambton County farmer who claimed road salt caused crop losses could “open the floodgates” to similar lawsuits, warns the head of an organization representing Ontario’s municipalities.

“We’re talking about a very serious precedent here,” said Joe Tiernay, executive director of the Ontario Good Roads Association that represents nearly 450 municipalities, including London.

The Superior Court ruling awarded more than $100,000 in damages to Brooke-Alvinston farmer Joseph Steadman, who successfully claimed he had suffered crop losses leading to a depreciation in value of his 39-hectare farm because of the County of Lambton’s use of road salt.

“It’s going to have serious implications,” Tiernay said Wednesday, adding his board would likely be seeking an opinion from legal counsel on how to move forward. “It just opens the floodgates.”

"It’s something we’ll pay attention to, that’s for sure,” echoed John Parsons. As the division manager of transportation and roadside operations for London, Parsons is the point person charged with carrying out the city’s salt-management plan when winter weather causes roads to become ice-packed and slick.

London has used an average of 27,200 tonnes of road salt annually in the last five years, Parson said. “We do use beet juice, but we also do use salt. We don’t use it on every road.”

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said the decision poses “significant ramifications” for Ontario municipalities.

“I believe when this goes out to the municipalities, there will be a good deal of concern.”

Steadman produced videos and photos, as well as the expertise of environmental and crop scientists, to support his claims during a 12-day hearing last spring.

An environmental engineer testified that “elevated concentrations” of sodium and chloride were found in 126 soil samples taken from the Steadman farm, according to the decision.

He drew the conclusion that this was the result of road salt being applied on nearby Nauvoo Rd. and the transport of this salt on to the farm fields.

Tiernay pointed out there are countless roads abutting farm fields in the province. If the ruling stands, this could lead to a legal nightmare scenario for municipalities, who would have to balance the liabilities of using salt versus not using it.

“There’s that balance between public safety and the environment,” said Parsons, who called salt the “most effective” and “most economical” way of clearing roads in the colder months.

The court ruling awarded Steadman $107,352 in damages. This includes $56,700 for depreciation in the value of their property and $45,000 for crop losses from 1998 to 2013.

The county brought forward its own scientific expert who testified the use of Roundup - a common weed killer - could have contributed to the salt content found in the soil on the farm.

Lambton County’s liability is “way worse” if it doesn’t put down road salt, said Jim Kutyba, the county’s general manager of infrastructure and development services.

Though the county’s insurance will be responsible for deciding whether to appeal the decision, Kutyba believes there are grounds to do so.