This week, the Ontario Legislature's Social Policy Committee is holding hearings in Toronto, Walkerton, Cornwall, Bath, and Peterborough to hear the public's views on Bill 43, An Act to protect existing and future sources of drinking water and to make complementary and other amendments to other Acts. Waterkeeper appeared before the Committee in Toronto Monday to share our concerns about the Clean Water Act.
For years, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has encouraged government, industry, and citizens to meet Ontario's minimum water quality standards. We offered a comment on the original source water protection white paper. In short, we truly want to ensure clean, safe supplies of drinking water for generations to come.
Now, after careful consideration, we can only conclude that this bill will never effectively ensure Ontario's minimum water quality standards are met.
First and foremost, the Clean Water Act might undermine existing environmental legislation in Ontario. The Act is a planning tool that can help municipalities prioritize drinking water threats, which is helpful. Unfortunately, it inadvertently creates a complicated permitting system that could sanction pollution otherwise discouraged by laws like the Ontario Water Resources Act and the Environmental Protection Act.
These Acts protect our rights not only to clean drinking water, but to clean water in general. Adding a new clause in the Act to recognize these laws and the protections they offer would alleviate our greatest concern.
The planning process mandates the creation of comprehensive drinking water protection plans for municipal wells, mostly in Southern Ontario. From a scientific perspective, this kind of research and analysis is extremely useful. But from a legal perspective, permanently labelling activities â€œriskyâ€? or â€œnon-riskyâ€? in a binding report could create unintended problems. We don't always have enough information to foresee the consequences of certain actions or to understand the environmental impacts of certain pollutants, so we can't always itemize every significant drinking water threat. If a polluting activity is not specifically included in an assessment report, it might also send a signal to the community that some actions impairing water quality may be unimportant as long as they don't contaminate a municipal water system.
Waterkeeper also expressed concerns that the wording of the legislation might make it unworkable. There are many drafting problems with Bill 43, but most importantly it fails to include a reasonable, workable definition of â€œsignificant drinking water threat.â€? This term is the heart of what the Bill is about.
The definition of significant drinking water threat in section 2(1) requires that a risk assessment be prepared concluding that something is a significant drinking water threat. However, no risk assessment is required unless something is already identified as a significant drinking water threat in the assessment report. As it currently stands, this definition means that no permits can be required for any activities under the act.
There are a number of changes that can be made to improve drinking water protections in Ontario. Waterkeeper will describe some of these changes in a forthcoming written comment on the Clean Water Act, due out later this week.
In the meantime, we encourage you to read our three-page oral presentation and our 2002 white paper comment on our web site: www.waterkeeper.ca.