TORONTO – An Ontario company was convicted Thursday of violating environmental and labour regulations in connection with the 2008 explosion of a propane plant in Toronto that killed a man and forced thousands from their homes.
Sunrise Propane and its directors, Shay Ben-Moshe and Valery Belahov, were found guilty of nine provincial-offences charges in relation to the early-morning blast on Aug. 10.
The court ruled Sunrise failed to provide safety training and a safe working environment, discharged a contaminant and contravened a number of provincial orders related to the cleanup after the blast.
The company was cleared on one count of failing to comply with a provincial order.
The court also found Ben-Moshe and Belahov failed to take all reasonable care to prevent the company from flouting those orders.
Sunrise defence lawyer Leo Adler said both he and his clients were disappointed with the verdict, which could amount to millions of dollars in fines for the company.
Ontario government lawyers argued training negligence contributed to the blast that killed employee Parminder Saini, 25, and rained debris on the surrounding area. Bob Leek, 55, a firefighter who responded to the emergency call on his day off, also died of a heart attack.
According to the government, the initial blast occurred when propane vapours ignited during a risky truck-to-truck propane transfer.
The court heard Saini, who had been in Canada just eight months to study manufacturing management at a local college, was “incinerated” while fellow employee Felipe De Leon escaped.
De Leon was an experienced propane truck driver while Saini had only been filling propane tanks for a few months. The two men reacted differently when the propane truck exploded, the court heard.
The explosion, which led to the evacuation of some 12,500 residents and caused millions in property damage in the Downsview community, made international headlines.
Residents woke at 4 a.m. to see fireballs launching through smoke-filled air, shattering windows and coating lawns in toxic asbestos. Major highways were shut as two propane tanks continued to burn more than five hours after the explosion.
During the trial, which began in February 2012, the court heard that Sunrise had been ordered almost two years earlier to stop truck-to-truck transfers but it continued.
The defence had argued that Saini and De Leon had received training and were handling a faulty piece of equipment.
“My understanding from the fire marshal’s report was that it was a hose that was defective,” Adler said Thursday after the verdict was delivered.
He said there were no charges of criminal negligence brought against Sunrise.
“This was fully investigated … by all the regulatory agencies,” he said, adding that all charges brought against Sunrise fall under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Environmental Protection Act.
“Obviously our thoughts are with the family of the young man that died,” Adler said. “Nothing could ever bring him back.”
Adler said he will review the verdict with his clients before deciding on whether or not to appeal the ruling.
Harvin Pitch — lead counsel in a class action representing members of the Downsview community — said his clients were delighted by Thursday’s ruling.
“It’s very helpful to have a verdict that the judge recognizes the negligence on the part of Sunrise and its officers,” he said, adding that his clients could be entitled to a collective multi-million dollar settlement.
Last year the court certified the class action — if a settlement isn’t reached, the class action will go to trial.
Pitch said more than 2,000 residents have registered their claims online.
“It’s nice to see that after a trial, with people giving evidence under oath, the judge came to that conclusion,” Pitch said of the ruling. “We’re not surprised, we’re grateful.”
Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley said the verdict holds Sunrise Propane and its directors accountable.
Following the blast, the government shut down operations at all three of Sunrise Propane’s facilities.
“The province is always prepared to go to court to defend the environment from those who would treat it irresponsibly and cause harm,” he said in a statement.
The court will reconvene July 23 to set a date for the sentencing of Sunrise and its directors.