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Port Colborne Class Action Lawsuit Against Vale, Canada

Largest class action lawsuit for environmental damage in the history of Canada was filed by residents of Port Colborne against Vale/Inco. In the end, the Supreme Court sided with Vale and denied the residents the awarded compensation.


In Pearson (later Smith) v. Inco, the largest collective legal action against environmental damage in the history of Canada, residents of Port Colborne, Ontario, filed a collective suit against Inco (now Vale) [3]. Residents claimed that the refinery is responsible for heavy metal contamination of their soils, creating serious health risks and diminishing property values [2]. The lawsuit was acknowledged as legitimate by a Canadian court of law in 2005. It is the first time that such an initiative has been accepted [3].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Port Colborne Class Action Lawsuit Against Vale, Canada
State or province:Ontario
Location of conflict:Port Colborne
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Tailings from mines
Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Copper
Nickel, electrocobalt
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Raw materials from Vale’s Sudbury mining operations are shipped to Port Colborne’s refinery for processing. The refinery is "a vast 360-acre complex that produces electrocobalt, makes and distributes finished nickel products, and processes precious metals. Finished products are shipped from Port Colborne to destinations around the world" [4].

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Project area:140
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:18,306
Start of the conflict:06/2000
End of the conflict:04/2012
Company names or state enterprises:Vale Canada Ltd from Canada
International Nickel Company (INCO) from Canada
Vale (Vale) from Brazil
Relevant government actors:Ontario Ministry of Environment
Regional Municipality of Niagara
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Neighbours Helping Neighbours
Residents of Port Colborne
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Neighbours/citizens/communities
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
In 2003, Wiggins motivated others to organize a global day of action against Inco. In October of that year, people around the world demonstrated and held public presentations, film screenings and vigils in Newfoundland, Ontario, Guatemala, Indonesia and Kanaky-New Caledonia in the first global day of action against a Canadian mining company.
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills
Other Environmental impactsResidents feel that the Inco refinery is responsible for the heavy metal contamination of their soils, and Inco has admitted to contamination by nickel, copper, cobalt and arsenic [2].
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases, Deaths, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsSince 1999 the soil and water of the region have been seriously contaminated with nickel and nickel oxide. This pollution puts the population's health at risk, and may cause deadly diseases, such as cancer and leukemia[3]
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impacts Residents argue that their property values have been diminished by the levels of nickel emitted from Inco's refinery [2]
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Strengthening of participation
Proposal and development of alternatives:This scale of class action suit against environmental destruction was the largest of its kind in Canada.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:In the end the Court sided with Vale. Residents were never compensated for the damage to their health, lands and properties. Vale was awarded court costs. The failure of this very costly and failed attempt to hold Vale/Inco to account for the massive pollution they generated and emitted throughout the refinery's life has likely made other communities less likely to take similar legal action against such injustices.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Summary of Case: Smith v. Inco Limited, 2011 ONCA 628 (CanLII)
[click to view]

[1] (Wikipedia, Post Colborne)
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[2] (Glynn, 2010) Canada’s Largest Environmental Lawsuit a Victory. The Dominion.
[click to view]

[3] International Open Letter of Those Affected by Vale. MAC: Mines and Communities
[click to view]

[4] (Vale, n.d.) Vale in Canada website
[click to view]

[5] (Dobby, 2011) Court throws out environmental class action against Inco. National Post
[click to view]

[6] (Austen, 2006) Brazilian Mining Company to Buy Inco of Canada. New York Times
[click to view]

Other documents

Port Colborne Sourced from:
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Jen Gobby
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:4145
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