The province has extended a moratorium on water bottling operations, but is it just a stall tactic?
Ontario’s moratorium on new permits to bottle water will be extended for nine months.
Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek “proposed” the extension on November 19. Just weeks earlier, he had signalled through the media his government’s intention to allow the moratorium imposed by the previous Liberal to expire at the end of the year.
Now his government is accepting further public input until December 18 “to verify the extensive data and scientific evidence submitted already,” according to a government spokesperson.
Nestlé Waters Canada, which has been at the centre of ongoing controversy over efforts to renew its water bottling permits at wells in Hillsburgh and Aberfoyle in Wellington County west of Toronto, has expressed support for the extension. A company spokesperson told the CBC that the company welcomes the opportunity to “demonstrate [its] commitment to the responsible stewardship of Ontario’s freshwater resources.”
Yurek’s change of position is essential. But there’s still a long way to go to protect water as a common good in Ontario. In fact, the Ford government is in the midst of weakening environmental protections through Bill 132. The so-called Better for People, Smarter for Business Act, has passed second reading in the Legislature.
So why the reversal on water bottling permits? The government could be just stalling for time.
Persistent public opposition to Nestlé’s water bottling operations in Wellington County has reached a boiling point with the threat of future water shortages in the region linked to Nestle’s expansion efforts in the region. Nestlé Waters Canada currently has permission to extract 4.7 million litres of water a day at wells in Hillsburgh and Aberfoyle.
Also, preliminary results of a water study in Centre Wellington – site of Nestlé’s proposed Middlebrook well – indicates that the community is “at risk of not having enough water to service its growing population,” according to Martin Keller of the Grand River Conservation Authority.
Moreover, scientific studies show that pumping at this well will interfere with the township being able to expand its water system.
At the same time, the Ford government has stated it’s keen to see more housing development in the community. So why would the government approve a new well for Nestlé? (It would add only one or two jobs.)
In the weeks before Yurek’s announcement, more than 500 people attended events in four different cities to draw public attention to Nestlé’s operations. Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions sponsored by Environmental Defence and the Council of Canadians calling for a permanent moratorium on water takings in the province.
The groups warn that weakening water protections could put the public at risk as happened at Walkerton under Mike Harris.
Harris was premier in Ontario in 2000 when an outbreak of waterborne gastroenteritis in the town just 100 kilometres northwest of Guelph, sickened more than 2,000 people and resulted in six deaths. The government ignored the warnings.
For the Ford government, the stakes are just as high as the growing climate crisis increases the pressure on drinking water supply, making the future of Nestlé and the rest of the bottled water industry less tenable.
Mike Balkwill is campaign director with Wellington Water Watchers.