Walkerton is proof that Tory cutbacks come with a cost
As police and environment ministry officials begin the arduous task of investigating the gritty details behind the Walkerton tragedy, environmental experts have their own explanations of how seven trusting people lost their lives to the public water system.
The province’s stripped-back concept of governing, eco sages say, foreshadows a future of citizen suffering for as long as we are ruled by the Tories and their deregulation obsessions.
The traditional idea that government policy exists to protect the well-being of the people seems almost quaint in the midst of this orgy of cutbacks to environmental monitoring and enforcement programs and layoffs of inspection officers and scientists — the very people who guarantee public safety.
A Sierra Legal Defence Fund report titled Who’s Watching Our Waters?, issued, eerily, on May 15, just days before the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, finds that violations of wastewater discharge limits in Ontario jumped from 2,200 in 1997 to more than 3,300 in 1998.
Interestingly, Walkerton appears in the report. It turns out the local pollution control plant’s outward water flow, the town’s drinking water, regularly exceeds ministry standards for monthly average levels of phosphorus — a nutrient for bugs like E. coli — yet there has been no prosecution of that facility.
“In fact, they’ve been in violation in their water effluent discharge from their sewage treatment plant for five years running,” says the Fund’s Elizabeth Christie, citing ministry figures.
Christie and other activists find it offensive that the government is trying to suggest that the Walkerton situation is an isolated one-off problem due to human error, and not a massive infrastructure problem.
Saddened by the latest chain of events is Liberal environment critic Jim Bradley, who served as environment minister from 1985 to 90.
Bradley notes that the government has cut more than 40 per cent of the operating budget of the environment ministry, firing a third of the staff.
He points to regional staff’s failure to respond in 1998 when E. coli was first found in the drinking water in Walkerton, and then again this year — and he stresses the importance of closed-down government labs and dismissed staffers who might have saved the situation.
“If they had sent those samples to a Ministry of Environment lab as soon as they spotted that strain of E. coli, they would immediately have called the medical officer of health to shut everything down, but you have to have the staff and labs to do that.”
These public facilities are a thing of the past ever since the four regional testing labs were replaced by a single central lab, Bradley notes.
Erik Peters, the provincial auditor, warned in his annual report in 1996 — a year after Harris was elected — that because of cutbacks the government was failing to audit hundreds of small water plants across the province.
“They (the environment ministry) told us in 1996 that they were now doing their inspection on a risk basis,” Peters tells NOW, “but whether they got into the business of fixing it is really going to be the subject of an audit in the near future.”
The province’s record on cleaning up the Great Lakes doesn’t inspire confidence in their commitment to safe drinking water. A May 1998 report of Parliament’s standing committee on the environment and sustainable development took both the federal and provincial governments to task for failing to follow their own targets for reduction of lake pollutants.
In the early 1990s, the International Joint Commission identified 42 hot spots around the Great Lakes, including Hamilton Harbour, Toronto and the Bay of Quinte.
Since taking office in 1995, Harris has been busy dismantling 30 years’ worth of safeguards to protect the environment and conserve natural resources.
John Bennett, director of atmosphere and energy at the Sierra Club in Ottawa, says, “The first thing the Tories did was download responsibilities onto the smallest, least powerful segment of our government system, municipalities, with no easily reachable provincial backup any more.”
Another factor Bennett notes is lack of support for family farms and for ways to modernize farming operations in an environmentally friendly manner.
“There’s very little control in terms of how we farm, and farms are getting larger and larger. As the smaller farmers are forced out, thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle are concentrated in one place.” All of which leads to massive increases of raw animal sewage.
The fact is, there is still no comprehensive legislation dealing with disposal of manure, either through composting or by reducing certain types of feed.
While the environment ministry is investigating and the Ontario Clean Water Agency has taken control of Walkerton’s utility commission for at least the next six months, the latest announcements about new rules and regulations are widely viewed as too little and too late.
At the Ministry of the Environment, spokesperson John Steele will say only that “there are numerous investigations that will take a look at what happened” and that the investigation force, a separate entity inside the ministry, will make recommendations and decide whether charges will be laid.
Paul Muldoon of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, is skeptical. “The mantra of this government is ‘Less government is better government,’ but at what point does less government become dysfunctional, in the sense that it starts to erode public safety?”
THE TORY RECORD
Ministry of Environment and Energy budget cut by almost $400 million
Great Lakes cleanup funding terminated
Funding for the Ontario Clean Water Agency eliminated, paving the way for privatization of municipal water and sewer services
Ban on waste incinerators lifted, opening the door to more toxic air emissions
Staff at Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs laid off and inspections of produce for pesticide residues terminated
Mining allowed in new protected areas
$718 million cut from public transportation while an estimated 1,000 people die yearly from T.O. car exhaust
Water And Sewage Services Improvement Act divests the province of water and sewage plants, leading to downloading and privatization
Cuts to ministries of Mines, Transportation and Natural Resources and Northern Development take thousands of researchers, scientists and inspectors out of the field
Intervenor funding for environmental hearings eliminated except in special circumstances
Source: Canadian Environmental Law Association