The Toronto Star
September 26, 2001
Turning Ontario’s drinking water operations over to private hands in an attempt to fix the ills in the system would be tragic, the Walkerton inquiry was told yesterday.
"We are by no means arguing for the status quo. But the private sector option is not the solution," said Ron Crawley, representing the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"It would be a tragedy if water was privatized in the province," Crawley told Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor, who heads the inquiry.
A delegation from the Canadian Environmental Law Association echoed Crawley’s sentiments. "How much sense does it make for a municipality to contract out a resource that at the end of the day, the taxpayer is still on the hook?" asked Paul Muldoon, the group’s counsel and executive director.
Those opposed to privatization of water utilities said their major concern was loss of public accountability, because private companies are more likely to operate behind closed doors in the name of protecting their competitive interests.
John Jackson of the Canadian Environmental Law Association noted that it took his group a year through a Freedom of Information request to get a copy of the contract a private firm signed with Hamilton-Wentworth to operate the municipality’s water system. Jackson said the copy of the contract arrived with sections blacked out.
The naysayers of privatization also argued a profit-driven company is less likely to strive to exceed minimum government standards and to make future improvements in the system once a contract is locked in place.
"We are by no means arguing for the status quo . . . (But) it would be a tragedy if water was privatized in the province."
– Ron Crawley, Canadian Union of Public Employees
They pointed to the fact that water management companies are in the hands of a few multinational corporations, which are likely to be more responsive to their international head office than to the needs of a local municipality. Several delegations, including Energy Probe Research Foundation, have previously argued before O’Connor that the private sector can provide the expertise and financing to properly operate the province’s drinking water systems.
Speakers yesterday told O’Connor that money needs to be spent to help municipalities improve staff training and operation of their water treatment plants. But water is too special and important a resource to take out of public control, Crawley said.
O’Connor said he was a little concerned that Crawley was categorically opposed to private operations even if the residents in a given municipality decided it was their best option. "I do have some difficulty with any concept that . . . the public shouldn’t have its way," O’Connor said.
O’Connor wrapped up the last day of public hearings of Part II of the inquiry, which is considering recommendations to improve the future safety of Ontario’s drinking water.
After presiding over two town hall meetings in October – one in Ottawa and the other in Toronto – O’Connor will get down to the business of writing his final reports to the government, based on 100,000 documents and submissions from hundreds of witnesses from all walks of life.
He is expected to submit his report at the end of this year on Part I of the inquiry, which specifically addressed the contaminated water crisis in Walkerton that claimed seven lives and left 2,300 ill in May, 2000. His report on Part II will likely be completed early next year.