The consequences of the tainted water tragedy in southern Ontario are still being assessed. Seven people died and more than two thousand were made sick nearly two years ago, when the bacteria E. coli was found in drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario. An inquiry into the tragedy lasted more than a year, and a preliminary report was released last month. It blamed the two men in charge of the public utilities commission in Walkerton. But it also pointed the finger at cuts made years before by the Ontario government. Environmentalists across the Great Lakes are concerned that unless the lessons of Walkerton are learned on both sides of the border, water supplies will again be placed at risk. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Karpenchuk reports:
The consequences of the tainted water tragedy in southern Ontario are still being assessed. Seven people died and more than two thousand were made sick nearly two years ago when the bacteria, E. coli, was found in drinking water in Walkerton, Ontario. An inquiry into the tragedy lasted more than a year, and a preliminary report was released last month. It blamed the two men in charge of the public utilities commission in Walkerton. But it also pointed the finger at cuts made years before by the Ontario government. Environmentalists across the Great Lakes are concerned that unless the lessons of Walkerton are learned on both sides of the border, water supplies will again be placed at risk. The Great Lakes Radio Consortiums Dan Karpenchuk reports from Toronto:
Walkerton is a small community of five thousand people about 135 miles northwest of Toronto not far from Lake Huron. There’s some light industry, some tourism… but agriculture is the economic mainstay. The E. coli disaster put the town of Walkerton in the headlines, where it’s remained. Some still feel the effects of the tainted water through an assortment of medical symptoms and complications. Others won’t drink the water; no matter what assurances they’ve been given that it’s safe. Many, like Robert Cooney, remain bitter.
“People in this town are sick of the whole thing. Yes, they got compensation. But for the people that are on dialysis and the people that lost loved ones, we’re looking for something. Something went wrong.”
There was a lot that went wrong, according to the man who headed the inquiry into the tragedy. In January, Justice Dennis O’Connor released his report. He concluded that the brothers who ran the Public Utilities Commission contributed directly to the tragedy, first by failing to properly monitor the drinking water, then by trying to cover up the emerging catastrophe by actively misleading health officials, assuring them the water was safe.
But O’Connor also turned his criticism on the government of Ontario, saying cuts to the MOE, or Ministry of Environment, undermined its ability to deal with the problems in Walkerton.
“The provincial government’s budget reductions led to the discontinuation of government laboratory testing services for municipalities in 1996.”
Now six years later, those services still have not been reinstated.
“In implementing this decision, the government should have enacted a regulation mandating that testing laboratories immediately and directly notify the MOE and the medical officer of health of adverse results. Had the government done this, the boil water advisory would have been issued by May 19 at the latest, thereby preventing hundreds of illnesses.”
The Conservative government in Ontario reacted quickly to the allegations. Premier Mike Harris, who early on during the inquiry, maintained that his government’s policies were not to blame, now did an about face.
“I deeply regret any factors leading to the events of May 2000, that were the responsibility of the government of Ontario either prior to or during my tenure as premier.”
Harris went further in his attempts to limit the political damage. He said many of the recommendations made by Justice O’Connor would be implemented. They included continuous chlorine monitors for wells, increased inspections and better training for operators.
But many critics say they they’re not convinced. They say a week after the 700-page report was released, neither Harris nor any member of his cabinet, had read it.
Far from Walkerton, the political fallout is being felt most in Toronto, seat of the province’s legislature…. and home to many of Ontario’s environmental groups.
The Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policies says the problems in Walkerton have called attention to the broader issue of water quality in the region. Researchers say the amount of pollutants discharged into rivers and lakes more than doubled between 1995 and 1999. And over the same period the number of provincial water testing sites was cut by two thirds.
That could have serious implications for the province’s lakes and rivers…. and since those systems feed into the Great Lakes, the entire region is at risk.
Professor Louis Mallott was involved in the study….
“We concluded that Ontario is unable to assess the overall quality of Ontario’s inland waters that flow into the Great Lakes. And this is necessary to determine whether Ontario’s environmental policies are effective.”
Over the past year almost four hundred cases of bad water have turned up in Ontario. E. coli and other bacteria have plagued water systems in towns, trailer parks, schools, private homes and even a nudist colony. And that worries people like Paul Muldoon, the executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Muldoon says Ontario is also sending a clear message south of the border, and it’s not a positive one.
“I am convinced that if I was in the U.S. right now, I could at least legitimately raise the issue, saying lookit Canadians sure we cause stresses in the Great Lakes and there’s lots of issues here. But don’t talk to us until you get your act together and Walkerton is a glowing example, you do not have your act together. And since Walkerton there’s not a lot of evidence you’ve got your act together yet despite that wake up call, despite the depth of that tragedy.”
The Ontario government, however, insists the situation is improving.
But critics aren’t buying it. They say Ontario’s environmental problems have not only jeopardized the province, but could affect the entire Great Lakes region. They say there is a clear message to governments on both sides of the border…. that budget cuts and privatization could lead to more tragedies like Walkerton.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Karpenchuk.