By Linda Pim, Federation of Ontario Naturalists
The water issue of most concern in Ontario this summer—and, indeed, across Canada—is what comes out of the tap. At press time in June, seven people had died and many others were critically ill from drinking the municipal well water in Walkerton, a town of 4,800 in Bruce County in the Lake Huron watershed, a two-hour drive northwest of Toronto. The culprit: Escherichia coli 0157:H7, an especially virulent strain of the bacterium. No fewer than three official probes into the public health tragedy have been announced —an Ontario Provincial Police criminal investigation has begun, to be followed later by a coroner’s inquest and a commission of inquiry under the Public Inquiries Act.
A few facts are already well-established: Walkerton sits in the area of the most intensive livestock operations in Ontario (20% of all North American cattle harbour E. coli 0157:H7); one of the three municipal wells had faulty piping and a malfunctioning chlorinator; the Owen Sound office of the provincial environment ministry knew of problems with Walkerton’s water but did not inform health authorities; and the municipal utility had lab results showing the deadly E. coli for several days before the region’s medical officer was made aware of the crisis and issued a boil-water warning. These facts and a litany of other reported failures in the water protection system will inform all three inquiries. The Walkerton tragedy brings to wide public attention what Ontario environmental organizations have warned about ever since the Mike Harris government took power in 1995 —that with 40% of the environment ministry’s budget cut, off-loading of water testing to private labs, downloading of a broad spectrum of provincial responsibilities to municipalities, and reduced provincial grants to maintain sewer and water infrastructure, it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
In the wake of Walkerton, groups such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association have reiterated what they have been advocating for years—tougher provincial and federal drinking water legislation and water quality standards. The Walkerton crisis—2,000 people got sick and it may be as late as August before tap water there is safe again—is proving to be arguably the biggest environmental and political nightmare for the neo-conservative Harris regime in its five years at the helm. For Ontario NGO sources of information on drinking water protection, please contact Linda Pim at the Federation of Ontario Naturalists at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (416) 444-8419 ext. 243.