New water rules expected to increase rural costs

The Toronto Star
July 13, 2001

Residents of Ontario’s small and remote communities may see their water bills skyrocket if the province sticks with its rigorous new drinking water regulations, an environmental policy group said Thursday.

"Higher water bills may be one of the costs of living in a more remote area and that’s something people should take into consideration when they choose to settle in a more remote area," said Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of Environment Probe, a division of the public policy research institute Energy Probe.

Brubaker urged the government to encourage privatization of water systems at an inquiry into the tainted water scandal that killed seven and sickened thousands in Walkerton, Ont., last year.

On Thursday, the inquiry began the second part of its mandate, dealing with the future safety of drinking water in Ontario. The hearings will be held in Toronto with officials returning to Walkerton in August to hear final submissions on part one of the inquiry, which is trying to piece together the events leading up to the tragedy.

Brubaker said privatization would mean more incentives for companies to keep drinking water clean, because if they failed to do so, they would lose their contracts.

She also said a governmental body is less likely than private companies to blow the whistle on one of its own when problems arise.

Brubaker insisted that municipalities were mishandling water testing and delivery long before the current Conservative government came to power in 1995, as alleged when Premier Mike Harris took the stand at the inquiry in late June.

"I think it’s very important to understand that these are not new problems, they were as serious 10 or 15 years ago as they are today," Brubaker said.

Brubaker pointed to a study spanning 1987 to 1993 that found problems with at least half the water plants examined, and that most operators didn’t understand the fundamentals of water treatment.

Pat Vanini, director of policy for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, maintained that overall, municipalities have done a fine job of providing clean drinking water.

But she warned that not everyone will be able to pay for the increased costs brought on by the new regulations for testing and treating drinking water implemented last August.

All water system operators were made to comply with the same regulations, whether they serve a handful of households in a rural area or a city with millions of residents.

"We’ve got to remember that there are folks that are on fixed incomes," Vanini said.

"The piece we need to really think about is the capacity of the user to pay, and there will be parts of the province where there will be perhaps more capacity than others."

Documents from the municipalities association show the operational costs of a private water system serving 14 households in West Grey Township rose from $420 per household per year to $4,061 after the new regulations were implemented.

Vanini said that private operators of these small communal systems are walking away from their new, costly obligations, leaving municipalities to pick up the tab.

The Environment Ministry has ordered municipalities to take over 10 previously private water systems since August because they couldn’t comply with the new regulations.

The municipalities association called on the government to draw up distinct regulations for communities of different sizes and in different locations. For instance, Vanini suggested tests for pesticides might not need to be carried out as frequently in northern Ontario, where they are seldom used, as in farming communities.

Vanini also suggested that private companies might not jump at the chance to supply water when they find out the costs involved, especially in keeping on formerly unionized staff.

"There are instances where they’ve tried to privatize and when it comes down to the labour agreements the private sector says, ‘We can’t handle this,’ and they walk from the process," Vanini said.

"So we’ve been telling the government if they’re looking at mandatory privatization, one-size-fits-all doesn’t necessarily fit local circumstances."

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