September 30, 2000
Last May, a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria contaminated the water system in Walkerton, Ontario. A testing lab informed the Public Utilities Commission of the contamination, but, inexplicably, the PUC withheld the information from both the public and the government for the following five days. Not until the medical officer of health, alarmed by the soaring cases of bloody diarrhea in the town, conducted independent tests did the PUC confess its dirty secret. The information came too late: The contaminated water killed six people and sickened 2,000.
Ontario’s environment ministry, aware of Walkerton’s water troubles for more than two decades, did nothing to prevent the tragedy. As recently as April, it had received reports of contamination by coliform bacteria. But it didn’t inform health officials or the public, and it didn’t force Walkerton to take corrective action. The province’s environmental commissioner wonders if ministry management has “abdicated its responsibility” or if the ministry is “unwilling, incapable, or incompetent.”
The sad truth is that the ministry, like so many others across the country, is both incapable and unwilling. How else to explain the state of our drinking water systems? Ontario’s systems are in such disrepair that, following the Walkerton tragedy, officials issued 47 boil orders to protect consumers from bacterial contamination. They are so decrepit that a recent provincial inspection blitz revealed problems in more than half of the 281 water treatment plants examined.
This is by no means just an Ontario problem. Between 1989 and 1995, 45 water-borne epidemics sickened 1,800 people in Quebec. But the epidemics didn’t light any fires under provincial regulators: The drinking water systems of 90 communities still need repairs, recently prompting the government to urge 39,000 residents to boil their drinking water. Last June, the Newfoundland government advised residents in 188 communities – a quarter of the province’s communities – to boil their water. Last summer also brought warnings about water systems in British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Why have our regulators permitted our water systems to decay? What prevents them from strictly enforcing tough laws to safeguard our health?
One problem is that regulators lack the resources to respond effectively to even the worst threats to our environment and public health. Politicians are reluctant to invest in solid systems of regulation. In Ontario, where the government has reduced the environment ministry’s budget by more than 40 per cent, leading to the loss of more than 800 jobs, an investigations officer reports that “everybody’s been walking around like zombies.” “The whole ministry,” he says, “is in shambles.”
But even if regulatory budgets are restored – as they must be – regulators will lack incentives to enforce tough laws. Their political bosses are loathe to finance the costly improvements required by effective regulation. These costs are indeed daunting: In 1997, the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association estimated that we would need to invest more than $27 billion in water treatment and distribution systems over the following 15 years. Politicians don’t want to spend that kind of money. As the Quebec government’s Commission on Water Management notes, infrastructure repair is “politically speaking, unprofitable.”
To ensure that governments can regulate effectively, without conflicts of interest, the private sector must operate our water treatment systems and governments must regulate them. As seen in Canada and most of the world, governments regulate private companies far more strictly than they regulate themselves. Governments also welcome the capital that private firms invest in infrastructure. From Vancouver to Moncton, governments are beginning to tap into the financial resources, the expertise, and the operating efficiencies found in the private sector. Doing so lets governments focus on their core regulatory responsibility: rigorously enforcing tough standards.
We are spreading our message – that the government should not be asked to regulate itself – with appearances in newspapers and on radio and television talk shows, along with more scholarly work at conferences, in journals, and in an upcoming book. We will also be participating in the Walkerton Inquiry, which has been established not only to determine what went wrong in that community but also to help shape broader drinking water policies. With your support, we can help ensure that the tragedy in Walkerton is never repeated anywhere in Canada.