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
NamePort Colborne Class Action Lawsuit Against Vale, Canada
SitePort 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 CommoditiesNickel, electrocobalt
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsRaw 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].

Inco (now Vale) opened the refinery in 1918, and was one of the city's main employers. “Taking advantage of inexpensive hydroelectricity from generating stations at nearby Niagara Falls, the refinery produced electro-refined nickel for the war effort, and grew to employ over 2,000 workers by the 1950s. Cutbacks in operations and increasing factory automation have reduced the workforce to its present-day (2018) total of 170” [1]. “The refinery’s workforce peaked at about 2000 in the 1950s. The nickel refinery stopped refining nickel in 1984. Today the plant that refines cobalt and other precious metals” [2].

Vale took over Inco in 2006.
Project Area (in hectares)140
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population18,306
Start Date06/2000
End Date04/2012
Company Names or State EnterprisesVale Canada Ltd from Canada
Inco Limited from Canada
Vale (Vale) from Brazil
Relevant government actorsOntario Ministry of Environment

Regional Municipality of Niagara
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersNeighbours Helping Neighbours

Residents of Port Colborne
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingNeighbours/citizens/communities
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment 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
OtherResidents 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
OtherSince 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-economic ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
Other Residents argue that their property values have been diminished by the levels of nickel emitted from Inco's refinery [2]
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Strengthening of participation
Development of AlternativesThis scale of class action suit against environmental destruction was the largest of its kind in Canada.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.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 and Materials

Summary of Case: Smith v. Inco Limited, 2011 ONCA 628 (CanLII)
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[2] (Glynn, 2010) Canada’s Largest Environmental Lawsuit a Victory. The Dominion.
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[1] (Wikipedia, Post Colborne)
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[3] International Open Letter of Those Affected by Vale. MAC: Mines and Communities
[click to view]

[4] (Vale, n.d.) Vale in Canada website
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[5] (Dobby, 2011) Court throws out environmental class action against Inco. National Post
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[6] (Austen, 2006) Brazilian Mining Company to Buy Inco of Canada. New York Times
[click to view]

Other Documents

Port Colborne Sourced from: https://business.financialpost.com/legal-post/court-throws-out-environmental-class-action-against-inco
[click to view]

Wiggins and Smith outside of Vale-Inco Refinery Photo Credit: Diana Wiggins

Sourced from (http://nbmediacoop.org/2010/07/12/canadas-largest-environmental-lawsuit-a-victory/
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorJen Gobby
Last update11/04/2019