UBC loses appeal in ammonia dump that killed fish in Vancouver creek
The University of British Columbia campus is seen in the foreground, with downtown Vancouver in the background, in this photo from June 2019.
VANCOUVER -- A B.C. university has lost its appeal of a decision involving the dumping of chemicals into a fish-bearing stream that joins the Fraser River.
The University of British Columbia was fined $1.2 million last year after being found guilty of three offences.
The UBC conviction relates to an incident in September 2014. At the time of the verdict, the federal environment ministry said a mix of ammonia and water flowed into a creek near the UBC Thunderbird Arena.
Court documents from the decision last week say the refrigeration system had broken down, and a mechanic was called in the next day.
"While working on the repairs (the mechanic) discharged an ammonia-containing solution down a storm sewer outside the arena," the appellate court judge's ruling states.
"The storm sewer drained into a culvert downstream, which in turn drained into Blooming Ground Creek and then the Fraser River."
Madam Justice Neena Sharma's summary of the conviction decision continues, saying two citizens separately noticed an ammonia smell near the culvert. Authorities were called and samples taken revealed a strong enough concentration of ammonia that it would be toxic to fish and their habitat.
Environment Canada investigators found approximately 70 dead fish in the creek in the next two days, the judge said.
CIMCO Refrigeration was fined by the court after pleading guilty to dumping the mixture into the storm sewer.
In its case against the university, the Crown alleges UBC permitted or participated in the ammonia dump.
Counsel said the chief engineer of the arena was there at the time, and the school was charged with four offences under the Fisheries Act.
UBC argued the Crown hadn't proven the ammonia solution was a "deleterious substance," or that it entered the creek. The school also denied responsibility, as it had hired CIMCO to do the job on its behalf.
In their appeal, UBC's legal team argued the trial judge "misapplied the common law test for findings based on circumstantial evidence," meaning guilt can only be based on circumstantial evidence if the facts presented are the only reasonable inference that can be drawn.
The school said it accepts ammonia was found in the ditch and that it came from the arena, but challenged the judge's conclusion that the ammonia entered the creek. No samples were taken from the creek, UBC said in its appeal.
In the initial trial, the Crown sought a $3 million fine, while UBC suggested $350,000. The judge settled on $1.2 million.
During the appeal process, suggestions were made from the Crown and the school that that fine be increased or lowered.
Ultimately, the court dismissed UBC's appeal, with the judge adding the sentence was not unfit.
"The trial judge appropriately took into account factors justifying a greater sentence for UBC than CIMCO. UBC was convicted of a more serious offence so its culpability was higher. Also, CIMCO pleaded guilty and agreed to a joint submission, which conserved public resources," the appeal decision reads.
"UBC knew of the importance of pollution prevention into storm sewers and could not explain why it had not extended its own policies to the arena. The pollution was so extreme that people passing by the watercourse immediately noticed its impact on the air, and many fish died."