How much responsibility does a company bear when one of its subcontractors pours gasoline on a pond and sets it on fire?
That’s the question Yukon territorial court is faced with in the case of Anton ‘Tony’ Beets, charged with breaching his company’s water licence back in October 2014.
Beets is one of the directors of Tamarack Inc., who holds a water licence to operate a dredge in the Klondike. Both are charged under the Yukon’s Waters Act with depositing waste into the water and failing to report a fuel spill.
In 2014 a Discovery Channel crew was following Beets and his team working at the dredge at Eureka Creek near the Indian River.
On Oct. 4, one of Beet’s subcontractors, welder Mark Favron, decided to pour a bit of fuel on the dredge pond and light it on fire.
“I don’t give a fuck,” Beets told Favron when he asked whether he could do it, according to Favron’s testimony in court.
Favron estimates he poured about 1 to 1.5 gallons of gasoline on the pond, before setting it on fire.
The entire scene was captured and broadcasted during an episode of the show Gold Rush.
A clip from the episode was shown to the court.
As Favron is seen pouring fuel, a man narrates in a dramatic reality TV voice that the crew is about to give the dredge a “Viking baptism.”
The gasoline instantly catches fires and the camera zooms in on a cheering Beets screaming to the film crew: “I told you guys, ‘come hell or high water!’”
Favron testified he was charged for pouring the gasoline and pleaded guilty. He ended up paying a $1,725 fine.
But the team didn’t set up the shot with the film crew, he insisted, and when he realized he was being filmed he walked out of the shot.
Yukon’s chief mining inspector, Robert Savard, testified his office received a complaint from Environment Canada after the show “100 ounces” episode aired in March 2015.
The court also heard from Tyson Bourgard, a natural resource officer inspecting mine sites.
Bourgard testified he inspected the site about 18 times over the past several years.
Tamarack’s water licence didn’t allow them to deposit any waste toxic to fish and they had to report any spill to the Yukon spill line, he said.
There were no spills reported to the Yukon spill line about that site, Bourgard told the court, who looked for reports of spill on the Indian River in 2014 and 2015.
The licence also only allowed the company to deposit one kind of water: the effluent from the sleucing operations.
In cross-examination, he said that a licensee could let subcontractors use his water licence.
“Ultimately the licensee is held responsible,” he said, under questioning from Andre Roothman, Beets’s lawyer.
Brendan Mulligan, the Yukon government’s senior scientist on water quality, testified as an expert witness on the chemical properties of hydrocarbons, how they move in water and their toxicity.
Gasoline, he testified, contains toxic and carcinogenic substances like benzene, naphtha and ethanol. Some components of gasoline will evaporate, some will be absorbed by solid particles in water, he said. But most of it forms a non-aqueous phase liquid, meaning it doesn’t mix with water.
Setting fuel on fire is a last-resort measure when dealing with a spill, he testified, because of the risks to human health an uncontrolled combustion presents.
Even if the gasoline hadn’t been set on fire, its impact when reaching the Indian River would have been minor because of its volume, he said.
The toxic compounds in gasoline can inhibit exchanges between the water and the atmosphere, he said, which are necessary for aquatic life.
Mulligan said it was likely the concentration of fuel left after the combustion was so small it had no impact when it got to the Indian River, when asked by Roothman.
The defence didn’t call any witnesses.
Roothman will make his final submission today and hinted he would argue over the liability companies have for action their employees take when it doesn’t have anything to do with the company’s work.
Outside the courtroom Beets explained he decided to fight the charges because the fine the prosecutor sought was “substantial.”
“It was big enough to hire a lawyer and get geared up,” he said.
“Mine shouldn’t be bigger than Mark’s was.”
He admits he should have stopped Favron when he was about to pour the gasoline.
“I guess I should have told the man not to do it,” he said.
“But basically it’s a storm in a teacup.”
When asked whether the Discovery crew asked Beets for his permission to use the footage, he wouldn’t talk about it.
“Let’s not open a can of worms,” he said.