Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

National survey says patchwork of leaky regulations place many Canadians at risk when they drink tap water

A new national report card prompted by last year’s tragic events in Walkerton, Ont. finds that most Canadian provinces and territories have inadequate laws to ensure the well-being of Canadian water users.

Walkerton’s E. coli outbreak claimed seven lives and captured headlines across the country, but a new Sierra Legal Defence Fund survey shows that current regulations in four other Canadian jurisdictions are as bad or worse than those in Ontario prior to the deadly waterborne disease outbreak. And others aren’t much better.

“After a careful coast-to-coast review including interviews with health officials in every province and territory, it’s clear our present regulations are as leaky as a sieve. Last spring’s horrific events in Walkerton should be a wakeup call not just to Ontario but to the federal government and every province and territory in the country,” says Karen Wristen, Sierra Legal’s executive director.

Submitted to the Walkerton inquiry, the Sierra Legal report card assigns a D grade or worse to five jurisdictions. Joining pre-Walkerton Ontario with a D are British Columbia and Newfoundland. The Yukon receives a D-, and Prince Edward Island receives a failing grade of F. If changes proposed by Ontario after Walkerton’s E. coli outbreak are implemented its grade rises to B, the highest grade in the report, and the same grade assigned to Alberta and Quebec.

“This is about more than which province passed and which province failed,” said Judy Darcy, National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “We need strong federal action now. The Chrétien government cannot pass the buck. This situation cries out for federal leadership starting immediately to ensure that all Canadians can feel safe about the water that comes out of their tap,” she says.

The Sierra Legal report draws on interviews with health officials, analysis of provincial and territorial laws, and follow-up interviews. Each jurisdiction received a summary and was asked to respond. Grades are based on strengths and weaknesses in key areas including protection of water sources, water testing and operator training. It concludes that Canada lags far behind the United States in protecting drinking water. The report calls on the fedral government to play a stronger role in setting minimum standards and ensuring adequate funding.

“In many ways, the U.S. sets the standard both for water testing and protection of water sources. Many dangerous substances prohibited under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act aren’t even listed in Canada’s non-binding drinking water guidelines. The U.S. also sets tougher limits on many potentially dangerous waterborne contaminants than does Canada. Topping it off, American citizens can sue water providers who fail to provide them safe drinking water. Canadians cannot,” Wristen says.

“To bring us up to where the U.S. is, we need a comprehensive approach to protecting drinking water from potentially lethal contaminants,” Wristen says. “That means protecting water sources, ensuring adequate water treatment, insisting on properly trained and certified water operators, strict monitoring and enforcement, and prompt publication of all water-testing results.”

The report also notes a ballooning deficit in infrastructure investments threatens water supplies. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says about $16.5 billion is needed over the next 10 years just to replace or upgrade water mains, storage tanks and water treatment plants. The 2000-2001 federal budget commits only $2.65 billion over the next six years for all types of infrastructure projects including water.

“We must set high standards – and ones with teeth. But those standards will be meaningless unless we have the equipment and the operators to make them a reality,” says Darcy, whose union is campaigning for well-supported and well-regulated public water systems that can assure clean, safe water. “To have truly watertight protection our public water systems also need funding to upgrade and build new systems, so that we have the best technology and environmentally-sound practices. The federal infrastructure program is a down payment – but we can’t afford to wait. More money must start flowing now.”

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