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Globe & Mail July 18 2000, Tue. - by Susan Bourette and Richard Mackie

Alarm, confusion over secret list of water woes

People in 120 towns, cities named in Ontario report have right to know whether they are at risk, Liberal critics says

Toronto -- The publication of a previously secret list of 120 potentially dangerous water supplies in Ontario proves that the provincial government should release all its information on the status of water supplies, Liberal environment critic Jim Bradley said yesterday.

People in Ontario have a right to know everything the government knows about whether it is safe to drink local water, he said in a letter to Environment Minister Dan Newman.

A 57-page Environment Ministry report labelled "privileged and confidential," sections of which were obtained by The Globe and Mail, pinpoints 120 cities, towns, seniors' residences, schools and campsites that have problems with their water supply.

News of the report caused alarm in many of the places it named and many local officials denied the existence of problems.

The Environment Ministry repeatedly promised yesterday a statement clarifying the contents of the report that would deal with concerns about the safety of drinking water.

However, late yesterday, a spokesman for Mr. Newman said the statement would not be available until today.

Government officials were being especially cautious because the report and the clarifying statement likely will be examined at by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's public inquiry into the safety of Ontario's drinking water. In addition, the Ontario Provincial Police are investigating the E. coli contamination of the water supply in Walkerton in May that resulted in at least seven deaths and caused about 2,000 people to fall ill. The police are considering whether criminal charges could be laid.

Mr. Bradley said the failure to release a clarifying statement yesterday shows "the huge cuts in the ministry's staff have rendered the government unable to respond in a meaningful way to any emergency."

He said he received calls from across the province. "Clearly the public is worried and needs a comprehensive response to the report," he said. Since Premier Mike Harris's Progressive Conservatives took power in 1995, the ministry's budget has been cut by 40 per cent and its staff reduced by 30 per cent.

Mr. Bradley called on Mr. Newman to resume releasing the ministry's Drinking Water Surveillance Reports annually and to expand the program to include more municipalities.

"The Harris government has repeatedly refused our request to release these reports for the years 1998 and 1999," he said.

"Given the damning contents of the secret document detailed in media reports today, we can reasonably draw the conclusion that the Harris government places greater value on protecting its own image than it does the health and safety of Ontario residents."

At least two communities issued news releases yesterday denouncing the ministry's report. The city of Oakville -- which appeared on the ministry's "adverse water incident" list -- assured residents that its drinking water is safe.

Mayor Ann Mulvale said Oakville may have appeared on the list because of problems in private wells and not because of contamination in its municipal drinking water.

"Since the Walkerton incident, residents have a heightened sensitivity to water quality," the mayor said in a statement. "Our water meets or exceeds all provincial guidelines."

Thunder Bay also said its water is safe. However, boil-water advisories have been issued in four municipalities, and at 700 campsites west of the city due to the presence of the giardia parasite, which causes "beaver fever."

Donna Hunt, a clerk at the town of Bruce Mines in Northern Ontario, said residents have lived with foul water for 25 years.

A boil-water order has been issued in the town of 600 since June 1 due to one negative test on "turbidity" -- which essentially showed too much bacteria in the water.

Ms. Hunt says that when ownership of the waterworks plant was returned to the town from the government last year, the ministry demanded that the town install a filtration system.

"There's been an awful lot of concern since the ministry downloaded the plant in 1999," Ms. Hunt said. "They downloaded it, and now we're caught between a rock and a hard place. . . . How can a town of 600 afford this?" Meanwhile, a wave of worry rippled throughout Pickering late last week when E. coli bacteria were found in some well water.

Residents are upset that the Ontario Realty Corp. did not disclose the contamination to its tenants even though it knew about the problem last month. The provincial agency began testing its wells across Ontario a month ago as a precaution and knew on June 26 that the water was contaminated. The contamination affects some private wells, but not Pickering's public water system.


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