OPINION: County sued for rubbing salt in the wound

George Mathewson

A Lambton County farmer who doggedly fought back when his fields were damaged by excessive road salt has shown why you should never give up when treated poorly.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice awarded Joseph Steadman and his wife Evelyn $107,352 last month for crop losses and devalued lands, a decision that has left Ontario municipalities scrambling.

The damage was caused by de-icing salt the County of Lambton applied to Nauvoo Road beside their property between 1998 and 2013, the court determined.

Steadman, a full-time farmer, first noticed the problem in the mid-1990s. But when he took his concerns to the County, including soil sample results, Lambton’s roads manager and insurance company brushed him off.

In his decision, Justice Thomas Carey described Steadman as “an honest and knowledgeable farmer who was not particularly enthusiastic about being enmeshed in litigation.”

Nevertheless, he went to court because he was frustrated by the continued denial by the County and its insurer of any involvement or responsibility for the salt contaminating his property.

But as the damage advanced eastward across 15 acres of wheat and soybean fields, Steadman collected evidence: 126 soil samples with elevated salt levels, photos of damaged crops, and video showing patches of whitened soil and passing vehicles kicking up road snow.

The County looks bad in the 17-page decision. It vigorously denied its salt caused crop harm or reduced the value of Steadman’s land. What’s more, it argued, even if it had, Steadman should have done something to mitigate the impact. He could have put up fencing to contain wind-blown salt mist, or improved his drainage. And he should have applied gypsum to his fields to neutralize the salt, it insisted.

And there was this. While the County was denying responsibility it also began scaling back on its road salt use in 1997, right around the time the lawsuit began, the judge noted.

The Jan. 16 ruling was a shocker for the Ontario Good Roads Association, which represents municipal transportation interests. It asked for a review and two legal firms concluded appealing would be useless.

So the association has begun lobbying the Transportation and Municipal Affairs ministries to get “the legislation amended to protect municipalities from these nuisance claims,” executive director Joe Tierney stated.

Salt, in large quantities, is poisonous. Environment Canada considered adding it to the country’s list of the most toxic substances because of its adverse impact on the environment. But in 2004, the government instituted a voluntary code of practices instead to encourage municipalities to use the de-icer sparingly, while maintaining highway safety.

Following the Steadman’s victory, the county’s insurer changed its tune. It issued a statement advising other Ontario municipalities to review their operations to ensure they don’t over-salt their roads.