Group advocates privatizing Ontario water system

CBC News Online
July 13, 2001

WALKERTON, ONT. – The public inquiry into the E. coli poisoning in Walkerton, Ont., is being urged to recommend the privatization of public water utilities in the province.

¬†Environment Probe says private water systems will be more efficient and easier to operate. Seven people died after drinking Walkerton’s tainted water last year, and more than 2,000 others became sick.

Elizabeth Brubaker, the executive director of Environment Probe, told the inquiry that water utilities in Ontario have a lousy record in providing safe drinking water.

More than half of the water plants failed recent inspections, and there have been more than 200 warnings to people to boil their drinking water.

Brubaker says selling public utilities to the private sector will make them safer.

“We think that one of the great benefits of privatization is that we’d get better regulation out of it. Municipalities may agree it’s easier to hold the private sector accountable for their activities than it is a public utilities commission, or a water division,” she said.

Critics say the government is setting the stage for privatization of water utilities in Ontario, by making them more financially attractive.

Its expected to introduce legislation this fall forcing full-cost pricing of water. That could double or triple water bills.

The Walkerton inquiry is looking at whether to merge a lot of the smaller water utilities into regional utilities, to take advantage of economies of scale.

Paul Muldoon, from the Canadian Environmental Law Association says full-cost pricing and regionalization are prerequisites for sound water policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean privatization.

Muldoon points to the Ontario city of Hamilton to prove his point. He says the private operator there faces numerous charges for pollution and sewage spills.

Political scientist David Cameron has done a research paper for the inquiry. He isn’t able to make any hard and fast conclusions about privatization.

“You can have a very successful, very safe system, with a significant private sector involvement, or with a public operator,” he said. “And you can have rotten systems with either of those cases.”

A senior official with the government has denied it has any plans to privatize the water utilities in the province. That would be up the municipalities that own them.

But the official says the government is looking at increasing private sector involvement in the supply of water.

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