Walkerton: Government’s three deadly mistakes

Elizabeth Brubaker
Financial Post
May 31, 2000

Three fatal errors by Ontario’s government led to the Walkerton water tragedy that has left at least five dead and more than 1,000 infected over the past week. The government failed to prevent the pollution of the water supply. It failed to prevent the distribution of polluted water. And it failed to recognize that the private sector can handle municipal water supply more competently and safely than the public sector.

No one yet knows how Walkerton’s water system became contaminated. Since E. coli bacteria frequent animals’ intestines, many assume that the contaminants originated on a local farm. Some speculate that storm runoff carried feces to an improperly sealed wellhead. Others suspect that contaminated groundwater entered cracked pipes deep underground. Either way, one can’t help but wonder: How did farm wastes escape to neighbouring lands?

At one time, farmers had no presumed right to pollute. Landowners’ property rights protected them from trespasses and nuisances from neighbouring farms. But over the years, governments intent on promoting farming practices that might otherwise be challenged in the courts have eroded people’s rights to a clean environment. They have passed “right-to-farm” acts limiting farmers’ liability for pollution. In Ontario, the Farm Practices Protection Act prevents residents from suing farmers for the noise, dust and odours they create.

Aided by such laws, a presumption has evolved that farmers’ pollution is to be expected and accepted. As Cindy McCreath of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said of E. coli contamination: “If you live in an area with lots of livestock around, this sort of thing is going to happen. You can’t avoid it.” John MacDonald, who runs a water treatment plant in Alberta’s cattle country, is resigned to E. coli counts “that would rival any Third World country.” He explains, “It’s just something we have to be vigilant about.”

In all likelihood, the government’s first failure was to allow agricultural pollution that our traditional property rights system would not permit. Its second failure was to be oblivious to the possible effects of that pollution. The Ministry of Environment knew of sporadic bacterial contamination of Walkerton’s water system for many years. And it knew that the problem hadn’t been solved: A testing laboratory notified it of contamination by fecal coliform bacteria in January, and again in April of this year. The ministry did not alert local residents or health authorities, nor did it take effective action to correct the problem. Even an anonymous telephone call alerting the ministry to deadly E. coli bacteria in the water system failed to achieve any effective response.

The government — so intent on cracking down on individual lawbreakers — looks the other way when rules about the environment or public health are broken. It is particularly slow to crack down on public scoff-laws — the Crown corporations and municipalities that are responsible for so many of our environmental problems. And little wonder: Prosecuting polluters would mean prosecuting itself and requiring costly cleanups for which it would ultimately have to pay.

The conflict of interest that paralyzes governments when they both own and regulate systems is by no means unique to the Mike Harris government. Long before “downloading” and “offloading” became household words, the governments of David Peterson and Bob Rae permitted public landfills to ooze toxic leachate, and public sewage treatment plants to violate provincial standards year after year. But the current government has institutionalized the practice of not-so-benign neglect. Budget cuts and staff layoffs mean the government couldn’t crack down on violators if it tried.

While the government has in large part abandoned its legitimate role as regulator, it clings to one illegitimate role: that of owner and operator of water utilities. There is no reason for governments — provincial or municipal — to be in the business of treating and distributing water. As the bumbling of Walkerton’s utility so tragically illustrates, public owners and operators are not inherently qualified to run safe systems. In fact, they are often in over their heads, operating with little expertise and less support.

Mayor David Thompson suggests that Walkerton’s employees did not understand the deadly implications of E. coli contamination and believed they could quietly fix the problem by flushing and chlorinating. Allegations of ignorance ring true. Why else would the utility manager have allowed at least five days to pass before disclosing test results indicating E. coli in the water supply, despite repeated inquiries about system safety from the medical officer of health?

Private firms would bring a new professionalism to our water systems. They have years — in some cases more than a century — of experience gleaned from operations in more than 100 countries. They have access to huge sums of capital to invest in failing infrastructure. They use that capital efficiently, allowing citizens to pay less for better systems. Their directors and employees are also held strictly accountable, not only legally but also in the public eye. It is hard to imagine a community making excuses for real water professionals as readily as Walkerton has leapt to the defence of its utility manager.

Following the lead of Europe and the United States, Canadian municipalities are beginning to understand that the private sector can provide water services more capably than they can. After years of struggling with discoloured, foul-tasting, substandard water and numerous orders to boil drinking water — one stretching for 36 days — Moncton called in a private firm to finance, design, build and operate a water filtration plant. As Ron LeBlanc of the city’s engineering department explained, working with the private sector was the only way the city could afford to construct a state-of-the-art system.

Privatization is also gaining renewed momentum in British Columbia, where 187 privately owned water utilities have long served approximately 30,000 households. The largest — White Rock Utilities — has been operating since 1913 and supplies 18,500 people. Water privatization is coming soon to B.C.’s largest city: The Greater Vancouver Regional District is planning to engage the private sector in the design, construction and operation of its first water filtration plant. According to lead engineer Mark Ferguson, “It’s all about efficiency.”

As details of the chain of events in Walkerton emerge, it becomes clear that a polluter, a public utility and a government regulator share responsibility for the tragedy. Their shortcomings can be traced to one root cause: confusion over government’s proper role in protecting public health and the environment. Under a rational division of labour, the private sector efficiently provides services and the government strictly regulates them. In Walkerton, those rational roles weren’t in place, with predictable results.

Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of Toronto-based Environment Probe, is author of Water Utility Privatization and Regulation in Canada, a report that will soon be released. E-mail: ElizabethBrubaker[at]nextcity[dot]com

Response to “Walkerton: Government’s three deadly mistakes”

Privatization judge and jury

National Post letter, June 12, 2000
William Reid

By being both judge and jury, and providing us simultaneously with culprit and verdict in his ideological and politicized piece, Private Profit, Poisoned Water (June 5), Bill Tieleman has apparently obviated the need for any public inquiry into the complex circumstances and events surrounding the tragedy of Walkerton. This article attempts to discredit and discard one very real solution before the investigation can even begin: the privatization of water supply that was so eloquently articulated by Elizabeth Brubaker in her article, The Three Fatal Mistakes of Government (May 30).

Mr. Tieleman should check in with party headquarters before committing further comments to print. In a Maclean’s article last summer on globalization, Bob Rae prophetically stated: “The emergence of the free-market model in the developing economies of Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia is not the product of a corporate conspiracy, it is the consequence of hard lessons learned from cold experience. A collectivism that ignores the primacy of the market will fail. At its worst it will cost lives. At its best it will cost prosperity.”

Just a few days ago in Windsor, ironically just a short drive from Walkerton, Canada attempted to show solidarity with Latin America by hosting an Organization of American States conference. By eschewing privatization, would we be on side with policy developments in the region? Apparently not. The policy statement from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) September, 1999 issue of their IDB Projects Book on recent trends in the sanitation sector reads as follows:

“Limitations on the fiscal resources of the countries in the region clearly mean that the development, operation and maintenance of systems in the sector must be based on community involvement, self-sustaining water rates and eventually, the privatization of public enterprises …”

If such prominent left-leaning individuals and institutions can drop ideology to embrace an obvious pragmatism, what exactly is Mr. Tieleman’s problem?

William Reid, Ottawa.

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One thought on “Walkerton: Government’s three deadly mistakes

  1. Pingback: The Walkerton Tragedy | Environment Probe

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