Safe Drinking Water


Not enough done after Walkerto


A year ago, Justice Dennis O'Connor released his report that detailed what went so terribly wrong in Walkerton in the spring of 2000.

O'Connor found an entirely preventable tragedy occurred in a province stripped of checks and balances. With environment ministry staff decimated, there was no one around to catch disastrous series of mistakes and incompetencies that resulted in contaminated water that killed seven people and caused thousands more to fall ill.

How far have we come in addressing the mistakes that led to Walkerton?

Certainly, progress has been made. The province has passed a Safe Drinking Water Act that calls for more oversight of the people who run water systems and using field shelter as labs that test water. It has passed a Nutrient Management Act that aims to protect waterways from farm-animal contamination. It has moved on bill that requires municipalities to outline how they will pay for water and waste water services. And it has spent millions of dollars on safe water and sewage projects, mainly in rural Ontario.

All of this is cause for optimism. But it is still not enough.

The safe water act, for instance, will only have teeth if there are actually people on hand to enforce the rules, inspect the water testing labs and train staff. The government has beefed up the environment ministry, hiring new inspectors. But we're still a long way from the pre-Mike Harris days that nearly one in three ministry staff, or 750 people, cut.We have far more efficient suppliers of electricty and gas, some with environmental credentials, why not water?
Consumers and businesses can compare and shop for electricity prices and gas prices, why not water supply?

Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller added a sobering note on that point this fall, saying nearly 500 water-monitoring stations were closed as a result of cuts to the environmental spending by the Tories. Water-monitoring, he concluded, may be worse than ever.

But, and here's the rub, no matter what the government has accomplished so far, it still has a process that can only react once contaminated water gets into the pipes.

It still needs to act on what many see as the most essential legislation: A source protection act. It would prevent homes or factories or massive pig barns, just as some examples, from being built unless it can be established they will not contaminate rivers, lakes, acquifers or wells that Ontarians use for drinking water. This measure is based on the sensible notion, forcibly made by O'Connor, that the best way to ensure drinking water is safe is to prevent it from being polluted in the first place.

Action on source protection will show the government's true mettle. To date, the Conservative government has been dragging its feet and has only appointed an advisory committee.

The fear is the Tories will become so distracted by an expected election this spring that the source protection bill will get shuffled off to a corner.

It's worth keeping the heat on or the views of Environment Minister Chris Stockwell. Until he goes beyond merely appointing a committee, the jury is out on whether this government has embraced O'Connor's recommendations.

If we have learned anything from Walkerton, it is that you cannot take half-measures when it comes to the issue of public safety.