Lawyers to review 2,000 pages of documents in CK water contamination case

Lawyer Eric Gillespie outside the Provincial Offence Office in Blenheim on August 14, 2019. (Photo by Allanah Wills)

The environmental case against an Ontario ministry, minister, and wind companies over tainted well water is being pushed back to give lawyers a chance to review thousands of pages worth of information related to the charges.

Dozens of people packed the Provincial Offence Court in Blenheim Wednesday morning as the case went before the court for the first time since the charges were laid on July 12. Jeff Yurek, Ontario’s minister of the environment, as well as the Environment Ministry and the three industrial wind companies — Pattern Energy Group, Samsung Renewable Energy Inc. and Engie Canada Inc. — are all being charged under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA).

The three companies are charged under the EPA with “unlawfully discharging contaminants, including black shale and potentially hazardous metals into the natural environment in an unlawful manner that caused or is likely to cause an adverse effect.” Both Yurek and the Ministry of the Environment have been charged for allegedly “failing to take all reasonable care to prevent the installation and operation of the wind turbines” at the two wind farms, which resulted in the well water contamination.

The proceedings have now been adjourned until October 30, 2019 to allow the council representing the defendants enough time to review 2,000 pages of disclosure. The disclosure comes from Christine Burke, one of several Chatham-Kent residents who has been plagued with well water issues for years. Burke was named as a witness in court documents and submitted evidence under oath to the Justice of the Peace, which led to the provincial charges.

Toronto-based lawyer Eric Gillespie, who represents Burke, said the hundreds of pages of disclosure is made up of evidence that Burke has been collecting over the years related to the matter.

“What Ms. Burke has done is she has kept, I think, a fairly comprehensive record of both what has been circulated in the public realm but also what’s been coming through scientific investigations and that sort of thing,” Gillespie explained. “So that’s the nature of the documents we disclosed this morning.”

A lawyer for the Ministry of the Attorney General was also present in the courtroom on Wednesday and will be reviewing the disclosure over the next two months as well. Private prosecutions in Ontario are reviewed by the Ministry of the Attorney General and they decided whether they want to intervene in the case or not.

Citizens gather at the Provincial Offence Office on August 14, 2019. (Photo by Allanah Wills)

“In any prosecution that’s a private prosecution, they can choose to participate or they can choose to not participate and allow us to conduct the prosecution… or they could choose to say ‘we think these matters should be withdrawn’,” explained Gillespie.

If the Attorney General does intervene and decides not to proceed with prosecution, counsel’s  role would be complete and there would be no court hearing from the judge, however, Gillespie explained that if this happens, the Ministry of the Attorney General’s decision could eventually be appealed in a “different forum.”

Gillespie acknowledged that there could be some negative public perception regarding a conflict of interest if the Ministry of the Attorney General gets involved in charges against a minster and ministry. According to Gillespie however, that course of action is completely routine for private prosecutions.

“We can say that what is happening is perfectly normal. This is the way that all these prosecutions are addressed. From legal counsel’s point of view, we don’t have a comment one way or the other other than to say this is just how the process unfolds in all of these cases,” he said. “In well over 95 per cent [of the private prosectuions] we’ve been involved in in the past, we have been permitted to proceed.”

Gillespie added that he anticipates that he will hear back from the Ministry of the Attorney General before the court date in October with its initial assessment of the case and what it is going to recommend to the court.

As for the dozens of citizens that packed the courtroom, many of them took notes during the proceedings and listened anxiously to see what would come of it. Stan Thayer has been closely following the issues involving wind turbines for several years. A resident of Cornwall, he said he drove across the province on Wednesday to witness what he says is a very important case.

“Its history,” he said. “We’re making history here. The Liberal Government made a big mistake. Its got to be correct. Everybody’s losing, every hydro ratepayer in this province is paying for this daily. No one is going to win out of this. The taxpayers are losing all the way around, every day. We’ve got to get it stopped. I don’t know how but were going to try.”

After the proceedings, Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesperson for Yurek, said that Yurek has been taking the public concerns about wind projects very seriously. He added that he has been working to reverse decisions made by the previous Liberal Government in regards to wind turbines.

“The previous Liberal Government consistently showed a complete lack of respect for the people of Ontario, which is why within weeks of taking office, our Government kept our promise to cancel and wind down over 700 wasteful and unnecessary energy projects,” Buttigieg told Blackburn News in an emailed statement. “In addition, the Deputy Premier and Minister of Health has already taken action and formed an expert panel of independent third-party professionals to carry out a health hazard impact assessment. The expert panel held their first meeting on July 25, 2019 and it is anticipated the panel will develop and deliver its final report by end of 2020.”

-With files from Kirk Dickinson