It takes just one word to remind most Ontarians of the tragic effects contaminated water can have in a community: Walkerton.
This spring marked the four year anniversary of Walkerton's tainted water tragedy. In 2000, seven people died and more than 2,000 fell ill after cattle manure brought E. Coli into the town's water system. A public inquiry headed by Justice O'Connor examined the circumstances and policies that led to the contamination of Walkerton's drinking water supply. Justice O'Connor's final reports were submitted to the Ontario government two years later, in spring 2002.
Now, in 2004, Waterkeeper is concerned that one of the most important lessons of the Walkerton tragedy has fallen on deaf ears. Justice O'Connor criticized Ontario's Ministry of Environment for continuing to rely on ineffective voluntary abatement tools (Part II: 441). He noted that voluntary abatement (ie, "guidelines") can result in confusion and suggest that failure to meet voluntary guidelines may appear to be less serious than failure to meet a mandatory order (Part II: 443).
Because of concerns about the ineffectiveness of voluntary abatement, Justice O'Connor supported giving the force of law to Ontario Water Quality Objectives. He also recommended that the Ministry of the Environment increase its commitment to the use of mandatory abatement (Recommendation #74, Part II).
The Ontario Water Quality Objectives were enshrined in the Safe Drinking Water Act, thus becoming legally enforceable. Unfortunately, their sister guidelines, the Provincial Water Quality Objectives, were never given the force of law. To this day, the PWQO - which are intended to protect surface water for the protection of human and aquatic life - are considered voluntary standards.
And, just as Justice O'Connor observed, these voluntary standards are being overlooked and ignored in communities all around Lake Ontario. Here are some recent examples of environmental protection officials who have rejected the province's standards for water quality:
2001: City of Waterloo evaluates the health of the Grand River "based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criteria, in the absence of equivalent Canadian standards." 2004: A Ministry official supports Waterloo's statement.
2003: The City of Hamilton fails to comply with Provincial Orders to clean up its sewer system, while the Ministry of Environment shrugs its shoulders and states, the orders "were not considered punitive." (Mandatory abatement would be the normal course of action under provincial policy.) 2004: Downstream beaches remain the most contaminated beaches in the region, closed 93% and 76% of the time.
2004: City of Toronto launches a great program to attract residents to its beaches and celebrate those that are typically safe for swimming at least 80% of the summer. One small problem: Ontario?s water quality standards state that beaches should be open at least 95% of the swimming season.
Walkerton taught us that constant vigilance and commitment to protecting our waterways is integral to the health of our communities. The government promises that it is now committed to implementing each of Justice O'Connor's recommendations. Creating mandatory drinking water standards was a critical first step. Protecting surface water and bringing meaning and force to the rhetoric are next.
Read Justice O'Connor's full statement on voluntary vs. mandatory abatement: