Water Treatment Controversy

Fear has been good for Jack McAllister's business. For 12 years, his company, The Water Boys, has delivered spring and distilled water to Hamilton residents. Living in Steel Town, his customers have long been suspicious of the tap water the heavily industrialized city draws from Lake Ontario. But the E. coli poisonings in Walkerton, Ont., have added a whole other dimension, doubling sales last week. "It's really scared people," McAllister says. "When you talk death, that's the end of the road."

Canadians across the country are asking whether their water is safe - and wondering who is protecting them and how. Many question the wisdom of having huge factory farms in their communities. And some, like environmental lawyer Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club, want to know why Ottawa does not set binding regulations for water quality. At the moment, Ottawa's involvement is limited: it is part of the federal-provincial subcommittee on drinking water, which regularly updates guidelines for water safety. But those guidelines are not legally enforceable, and critics say Ottawa has failed to take responsibility, leaving control over water with the provinces whose budget cuts and downloading to municipalities have led to a disturbing lack of uniformity in monitoring, enforcement and public disclosure. "Kids shouldn't have to die," says May, "before governments pay attention to how much they have cut back on the environment."

Others are less critical of Ottawa. Sarah Miller, co-ordinator for the Toronto-based Canadian Environmental Law Association, believes the government of Ontario is to blame for Walkerton. Instead of its current hodgepodge of provincial statutes addressing water quality to varying degrees, Miller says the province should adopt - and administer - a safe-drinking-water act with legally binding regulations. "We need it all to be pulled together in one place," says Miller. "We need the legal authorities to be very clear."

There are stark contrasts in how provinces and territories go about trying to their keep water safe. Spring floods in the Yukon usually result in quick action, boil-water warnings issued without waiting for test results from wells. Most governments, however, wait for test results before issuing boil-water advisories. Quebec issues an average of 600 orders a year, by far the most in the country. Other provinces generally issue far fewer directives. In 1999, Alberta was typical, issuing only two orders. (Quebec says its higher numbers are due to the province taking more precautions than the others. It is, however, difficult to compare results because there is no single overseeing body in the country.) Some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, do not keep a registry of how many times communities are forced to boil water. That, environmentalists say, leaves them with an inadequate picture of their water quality.

There is no standard procedure for sharing test results among different levels of government and the public. When contaminants are found in the water, labs in most provinces report results directly to the provincial government. Only Quebec and Ontario rely on municipalities to inform them when something is wrong. Sometimes, the public is left out of the loop. Last November, Newfoundland Environment Minister Oliver Langdon denied CBC Radio's request for information on trihalomethanes in drinking water, saying it was a cabinet secret. (Carcinogenic THMs are the byproducts of treating water high in organic matter with chlorine.) Two months later, after a series of news reports, Langdon angered Newfoundlanders when he held a media conference to say 63 communities tested between 1985 and 1999 had THM levels above the recommended limit, some as much as four times higher.

Despite their image as centres of pollution, metropolitan areas may have safer tap water than their smaller neighbours. Big cities can afford sophisticated water treatment plants, which effectively guard against microbes, says Barry Thomas, a retired Health Canada official who served on the federal-provincial guidelines subcommittee. "Leaving small towns on their own in handling water treatment, which is so critical to public health, is irresponsible," says Thomas. "You just cannot leave this kind of thing in the hands of people who are not experts."

Recent government actions have shaken some Canadians' faith in their elected officials' commitment to protecting water. Last month, federal Environment Minister David Anderson refused to back a NAFTA commission inquiry into large-scale pork operations in Quebec and the waste they produce - and effectively quashed it. Provincial politicians, meanwhile, have taken a go-slow approach on regulating factory farming. Alberta's Agriculture Minister Ty Lund last month backed away from an advisory committee report that recommended tougher rules for the province's hog, cattle and poultry operations. Lund said he does not favour "heavy-handed regulation" and instead prefers voluntary measures, such as a "self-assessment" program in which farmers would be counted on to identify and fix problems. And in Ontario last week, Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman defended his recent decision to oppose attempts by municipalities to prevent factory farms from spreading manure on fields. Hardeman, claiming there is a danger of overregulation hurting business, said he is awaiting a report in the coming weeks by MPPs investigating large-scale farming before addressing how the industry should be monitored and policed.

The last federal budget, however, may promise some hope for cleaner water. It contained provisions for $2.6 billion in funding for municipal infrastructure over the next six years. About $2 billion is earmarked for "green" infrastructure, some of it water treatment and waste-water treatment. But the provinces, territories and the Treasury Board in Ottawa must still negotiate the details - while the provinces and municipalities will have to put in matching funds. And it is up to the provinces, says Michelle Giddings, a Health Canada official who sits on the federal-provincial subcommittee, to ensure watersheds are kept safe from increasingly intense livestock farming, as well as the use of more insecticides and herbicides. Despite Walkerton, though, Giddings feels "the quality of Canada's drinking water remains very high." When asked whether she drinks tap water, she replied: "Everybody asks me that, and yes, I do - I drink it straight from the tap." Given what happened in Walkerton, however, some Canadians are no longer willing to do the same.

The federal-provincial guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality set out basic standards for water-testing frequency and minimum contaminant levels. Each province and territory bases its water-safety policy on these guidelines, but only Alberta and Quebec have legislation mandating specific standards be followed. There is no set procedure for sharing test results between different levels of government and the public. Most provinces receive results directly from the lab. Governments in Quebec and Ontario, however, rely on municipalities to inform them of positive test results. The guidelines suggest the following schedule for sampling:

Population up to 5,000; Samples per month: 4

Population 5,000 to 9,000; Samples per month: 1 per 1,000 population

Population more than 9,000; Samples per month: 1 per 10,000 population and an additional 90

Maclean's June 12, 2000