Contamination: The Poisonous Legacy of Ontario's Environmental Cutbacks - Diemer.ca
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Contamination:
The Poisonous Legacy
of Ontario's Environmental Cutbacks

By Ulli Diemer

This is a story about fanaticism and death.

The dead are buried in fresh graves in the cemeteries of Walkerton, Ontario. The fanatics are very much alive, going about their daily business in the Premier's office and the cabinet room in Queen's Park, the seat of Ontario's government.

Investigators are still working to determine exactly how deadly E. coli 0157 bacteria found their way into Walkerton's water in May, causing at least seven and perhaps 11 deaths, and leaving hundreds seriously ill.

Water faucet

The story of the Walkerton tragedy is not, however, primarily a story about Walkerton at all. This was no unforeseen accident. It was the predictable - and predicted - result of deliberate policy decisions which gravely compromised the safety of Ontario's drinking water.

The broader story of Walkerton is the story of repeated warnings, from many different experts, officials, and agencies, that the Harris government's environmental cutbacks were putting public health in jeopardy. And it is the story of how those warnings were dismissed or ignored.

Step by step, a disaster was being prepared. The only question was where, and when, it would happen. Unluckily for Walkerton's citizens, it was in their town that the system broke down, with fatal results.

To understand how a government could utterly ignore, over a period of five years, the warnings of its own environmental experts, it is necessary to know the mentality of the Harris government, a highly centralized administration where all important decisions are made by Premier Mike Harris and a small group of militantly ideological advisors, and where all outside input is scorned.

This is a government which prides itself on "making unpopular decisions," on never compromising, on never changing course. The man in charge, Mike Harris, is as determined as the captain of the Titanic, disdainfully brushing off ridiculous warnings of icebergs and giving orders to push on, full steam ahead.

The chain of events begins in June 1995, when Harris's Progressive Conservatives take office, and start ramming through their "Common Sense Revolution." The phrase was concocted by the party's election strategists, but it captures perfectly the attitudes of Harris and his inner circle: The private sector can do everything better. That's a fact. That's common sense. Obviously, then, anything which interferes with the private sector - environmental regulations enforced by busy-body inspectors, for example - is nonsense and needs to be dismantled. You don't need public input or so-called "expert" advice to figure that out.

Armed with these certainties, the Tories set out to slash Ontario's "bloated" public services and "red tape."

Environmental programs and agencies are attacked with particular savagery. The Ministry of the Environment loses 42% of its budget. Front-line staff, charged with monitoring, testing, inspection, enforcement, and research, are decimated: 900 of 2,400 front-line staff are laid off. Regional offices are closed. Environmental agencies set up over the years to respond to complex environmental problems are dismantled in days. What remains of the Ministry is in total disarray. Similar cuts hit other ministries, including Natural Resources and Agriculture.

A number of industries formerly regulated by the government are told they can now regulate their own environmental performance. The act establishing "self-regulation" for the aggregates industry is a model. "Monitoring" consists of general questions on checklist-style forms which companies are asked to fill in every now and then and mail to the government. Just in case the message - nudge, nudge, wink, wink - isn't clear enough yet, compliance is based on the "honour system." Under the legislation, it is not an offence for a company to submit false information.

Not content with the environmental chaos it has already succeeded in bringing about, the government quickly turns its attention to water quality issues, an area still burdened by excessive red tape. Ontario's contribution to the Great Lakes Clean-up effort is cancelled. The "Water and Sewage Services Improvement Act" is passed. (No piece of legislation is allowed to leave the cabinet office before it has acquired a suitably Orwellian title.) The "improvement" consists of shutting down the provincial government's water testing labs, downloading control of provincially owned water and sewage plants to the municipalities, eliminating funding for municipal water utilities, and ending the provincial Drinking Water Surveillance Program, under which the Ministry of the Environment had monitored drinking water across the province.

The Act also serves to pave the way for the privatization of municipal water systems by making the municipalities responsible for future capital costs which many will not have the resources to assume, thus making them takeover targets for private corporations.

Increasing the pressure on municipalities to privatize their water systems, David Lindsay, a senior Harris advisor who now heads the provinces SuperBuild fund for infrastructure projects, makes it clear that infrastructure money will only be spent on projects to aid "economic development," not to renew and repair water and sewage systems.

The Tories' model is the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher privatized water services in 1989. Water-related illnesses soared (Hepatitis A by 200%, Dysentery by 600%), but, more importantly, company profits and their executives' remuneration increased even more spectacularly.

The mantra of the privatization fanatics is the same on both sides of the ocean: you can't makes omelettes without breaking a few eggs.

In the midst of the upheaval, there are many voices trying to warn the government of the dangers of what it is doing.

Environmental organizations prepare earnest briefs arguing against the cutbacks. Their concerns are dismissed out of hand. For the leaders of the Common Sense Revolution, arguments in favour of clean water or environmental preservation are the pleadings of "special interest groups."

The Provincial Ombudsman issues an urgent report saying that cutbacks have been so damaging that the government is no longer capable of providing the services which it is mandated to provide.

The Provincial Auditor, in his annual reports, criticizes the Ministry of the Environment for deficient monitoring of groundwater resources and for failing to audit small water plants across the province.

The International Joint Commission states its concern about Ontario's neglect of water quality issues.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (an arms-length environmental ombudsman) says that the government is compromising environmental protection, pointing specifically to the testing of drinking water as an area of concern.

Other events underscore these warnings.

In the spring of 1996, hundreds of people in Collingwood, an hour's drive from Walkerton, become ill after cryptosporidium, a parasite linked to animal feces, contaminates the drinking water. No one dies, but it is a clear signal that Ontario's water monitoring system is faltering.

In Japan, also in 1996, 13 children die and 20,000 fall ill with E. coli after eating sprouts grown in water contaminated by cattle manure. It is a stark warning of the dangerous link between livestock and water contamination.

The livestock-E. coli-water contamination link, in particular, is being looked at with increasing concern by scientists. Studies show that cattle manure is responsible for E. coli contamination of water and food in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Argentina. A Health Canada study says that the cattle counties of Southwestern Ontario, where Walkerton is located, are high-risk areas for E. coli infections. It shows that there is a direct link between cattle density and E. coli infection. The report also shows that 32 per cent of the wells in rural Ontario show fecal contamination.

The Harris government takes its own action on the E. coli problem in 1996. It decides to snip another piece of useless red tape, and drops E. coli testing from its Drinking Water Surveillance Program.

This, however, is only an interim step. The following year, it shuts down the Drinking Water Surveillance Program entirely. It further directs ministry staff not to enforce dozens of environmental laws and regulations still on the books. Farm operators, in particular, are to be treated with understanding if they are discovered to be in violation of livestock and waste-water regulations.

Environment Ministry officials, deeply concerned, warn the government again in 1997 that closing the water testing program will endanger public health. Their concerns are dismissed as the self-interested exaggerations of empire-building civil servants.

Also in 1997, however, senior officials in the Environment Ministry draft another memo which the government does heed. This memo warns that cutbacks have impaired the Ministry's ability to enforce environmental regulations to the point that the Ministry could be exposed to lawsuits for negligence if and when things go wrong.

The government's response is two-fold.

It holds a meeting of Ministry staff to discuss how to protect itself from liability if and when an environmental catastrophe occurs.

And it passes Bill 57, "The Environmental Approvals Improvement Act," which, among other improvements, prohibits legal action against the government by anyone adversely affected by the Environment Minister's failure to apply environmental regulations.

Walkerton water tower

Walkerton sits in the heart of Ontario's Bruce County, where environmental regulations - or the lack of them - governing livestock production have a very direct impact. The county, with a population of only 60,000 people, is home to 163,000 beef cattle and 100,000 hogs. The animal population produces as much waste as 1.6 million people.

But whereas even two people living on a farm are required to have a functioning septic system, there are no comparable requirements for factory farms, where a single 1,200-head hog operation can produce as much waste as 60,000 people. All of this waste is spread on the adjacent fields, a practice that was perhaps sustainable when farms typically produced 50 or 60 animals at a time, but is utterly unsustainable when feedlots hold 10 or 20 times that number. The fields can't absorb such massive quantities of manure, so inevitably serious contamination of the groundwater and surrounding watercourses results.

The associated health risks are well known. Dr. Murray McQuigge, the Medical Officer of Health for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound raises the issue forcefully in September 1999. He warns in a memo to local authorities that "in large farm productions that require large use of antibiotics, there are increasing concerns about the production of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Studies have shown that such antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread into the immediate farm family and from there into the community." He adds that locally there is increasing concern "that poor nutrient management on farms is leading to degradation of the quality of ground water, streams and lakes."

As time goes on, staff at the Environment Ministry's Water Policy Branch become more and more concerned about the safety of Ontario's drinking water. In January 2000, they submit another report to the government, warning that "Not monitoring drinking-water quality is a serious concern for the ministry in view of its mandate to protect public health." The report states that a number of smaller municipalities are not up to the job of monitoring the quality of their drinking water. It further warns that because of the privatization of the testing labs, there is no longer a mechanism to ensure that the Ministry, and the local Medical Officer of Health, are informed if problems are detected in local water systems.

The Harris government ignores the report.

Walkerton is the place where the system finally falls apart.

Walkerton's drinking water system receives its last Ministry inspection in February 1998. The inspection shows that there have been problems with the water supply for years, including the detection of E. coli in the system. The Ministry outlines improvements that should be made - but, desperately short of inspection staff, and faced with small water systems across the province which aren't meeting standards, it never schedules a follow-up inspection to see if the improvements are in fact being carried out.

By June 1998, Walkerton town council is concerned enough about the situation to send a letter directly to Premier Mike Harris, appealing for the province to resume testing of municipal water.

There is no reply.

Between January and April of 2000, the lab which tests Walkerton's water repeatedly detects coliform bacteria - an indication that surface water is getting into the water supply. The lab notifies the Ministry of the Environment about its findings on five separate occasions. The Ministry phones the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, is assured the problems are being fixed, and lets it go at that. The Ministry fails to inform the Medical Officer of Health, as by law it is required to do.

In early May, Walkerton starts using a new lab, A & L Canada Laboratories East, to test its water. This is the lab which discovers the E. coli 0157 contamination on May 16. It communicates its findings to the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, but does not inform the Environment Ministry, though provincial guidelines state it must do so. Asked why the lab failed to report the E. coli contamination to the Ministry, lab spokesman Gabriel Farkas said that the lab considers test results confidential intellectual property. "To send them to anyone other than the client would violate the basic principle of confidentiality" said Mr. Farkas.

Apparently unaware of how serious the problem is, the manager of the Walkerton utility covers up the fact that the water is contaminated, and tries to fix the problem himself. Several days go by before Dr. Murray McQuigge, the Medical Officer of Health, discovers the truth and blows the whistle. By that time, hundreds of people have been exposed to the deadly contamination.

The Walkerton story is the story of how systems which were established to protect public health were deliberately dismantled by a government driven by a fanatical hatred of the public sector. In the name of eliminating "environmental red tape," a water protection system designed with multiple safeguards to protect against a failure at any one point or by any one person was undermined until it could no longer function, despite the clearest possible warnings of the foreseeable consequences.

The Walkerton story is the logical result of the "Common Sense Revolution." It may also yet be the story of the undoing of the government responsible.

Ulli Diemer is a landowner in the Walkerton area.
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Written June 2000. This article first appeared in the July-August 2000 issue of
Canadian Dimension and was reprinted and reproduced in a number of formats and publications, including Alien Invasion: How the Harris Tories Mismanaged Ontario, edited by Ruth Cohen, published by Insomniac Press.
Aussi disponible en français: Contamination: L'Héritage Vénéneux des coupures écologiques de l'Ontario.
También disponible en español: Contaminación: El envenenante legado de los recortes ambientales de Ontario.
Also available in Japanese: Contamination: The poisonous legacy of Ontario's environmental cutbacks.
For links about Walkerton and water safety issues see the links page on the Connexions site.
See also Ulli Diemer's article Abandoning the Public Interest, about the undermining of public safety standards internationally.

Subject Headings: Cutbacks - Drinking Water - Drinking Water Protection - Environment & Agriculture - Environment & Health - Environmental Emergencies - Environmental Impact/Animal Industry - Environmental Legislation - Environmental Monitoring - Environmental Protection - Neoconservativism - Ontario Government - Walkerton, Ontario - Water Safety