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Verdict in Sunrise Propane gas explosion case

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Sunrise Propane and its directors were recently found guilty of numerous charges under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and Environmental Protection Act(EPA). A series of explosions at Sunrise’s north Toronto operation in 2010 resulted in the deaths of an employee and a firefighter, forced thousands of nearby residents from their homes and caused millions of dollars in damage. In the aftermath, the company failed to comply with various provincial officer’s orders under the EPA, and at trial the Ontario Court of Justice found the company failed to properly train the employee who died and failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent the explosions under the OHSA.

The specific OHSA charges were:

  • Failure to provide appropriate information, instruction and supervision to an employee regarding the safe work practices and recognition of hazards associated with propane storage, dispensing and handling, and on appropriate emergency response to propane leaks
  • Failure to take reasonable precaution of ensuring that a propane facility was installed and operated in accordance with regulatory requirements and safe industry practice

THe court found the directors guilty on both counts.

The EPA charges were:

  • Discharging or causing or permitting the discharge of a contaminant, namely sound, vibration, heat, gas vapour or solids, into the natural environment that caused or was likely to have caused an adverse effect
  • Failure to comply with a provincial officer’s order to provide written confirmation to the Ministry of the Environment that the company was willing to comply with the requirements of the order by 5:00 p.m., August 13, 2008
  • Failure to provide notification to the ministry if for whatever reason the company could not or was unwilling to comply with the order verbally and in writing within 12 hours of August 13, 2008
  • Failure to provide written verification that one or more qualified persons had been hired to carry out the work required by the order by 5:00 p.m., August 13, 2008
  • Failure to immediately undertake clean-up of the residential area around the plant
  • Failure to develop a written clean-up plan by 5:00 p.m., August 13, 2008
  • Failure of two directors to take all reasonable care to prevent the corporation from contravening a provincial officer’s order

The court found the directors guilty on all but the third charge.

The court did not accept the company’s defence that it had practised due diligence, that the gas leak that caused the explosion was unforeseeable and that the provincial officer’s order was incomprehensible and impossible to comply with in the given time frames. There was plenty of evidence that Sunrise had not practised due diligence, and the company had relied on mistaken legal advice from its counsel.

Both directors of Sunrise Propane are liable for the contraventions, and a sentencing hearing is scheduled for December. While many are no doubt relieved to see the result of this case, many more will surely be anticipating the result of that hearing.

It seems to me that Sunrise Propane was run in such a way that fairly important events occurred without full knowledge of the directors and without a full understanding of the legal and regulatory framework. This is a massive failure in any industry, but especially so in this case, where it led to the deaths of two individuals and the displacement of many more.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Editor

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Adam Gorley

Editor at First Reference
Adam Gorley, B.A. (Phil.), is a researcher, content provider and editor. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks and Internal Control blogs, HRinfodesk and other First Reference publications. His areas of focus include broad human resources issues, corporate social responsibility, corporate governance and government policies, information technology and labour market trends.Read more
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