October 26, 2001
I write to you during a time of terrible insecurity. Since September 11th, we have had to confront our vulnerability on so many levels. We have feared for the safety of our communities. We have lost our casual confidence in the very air that we breathe. We have become painfully aware that much of our security rests upon a tissue of trust and cooperation – one that is delicate and, once torn, difficult to repair.
The events of the last two months have reminded us of how important it is to protect our drinking water. They have given a new sense of urgency to our long-standing work to improve our water systems. But they have not made us feel powerless. There is much we can do to make our water supply, treatment, storage, and distribution systems safer.
Those who operate and regulate our water utilities seem frighteningly slow to understand this. Even after the tragedies in Walkerton and North Battleford, water systems all across our country remain substandard, with inadequate facilities, poorly trained operators, and insufficient funding – and political will – to correct the problems.
Here in Ontario, the environment ministry has released the discouraging results of its latest round of inspections of water plants. Almost half of the plants inspected did not meet provincial standards. The most common problem was insufficient testing of drinking water. The second most common problem was failure to meet drinking water standards, followed by failure to maintain required disinfectant levels in distribution systems and inadequate training and certification of operators.
There is no excuse for the great bulk of these violations. Many of the same problems were identified at the same plants in last year’s inspections. Many were even the subject of orders requiring the operators to comply. Thus no one can claim ignorance. And few can cite legitimate impediments to making the necessary changes, since most require neither a great deal of money nor a long period of time. Most are relatively simple problems that, with a modicum of knowledge and responsibility, can be quickly corrected.
Long before September 11th, we understood that bad management could be deadly. Now, we must be concerned not only about incompetence and neglect but also about willful actions, whether by terrorists or by other deranged individuals. Our water operators’ and regulators’ lax attitudes towards known dangers call into question their determination or ability to protect us from less routine harms. As The Globe and Mail recently wrote of the threats posed by terrorism to another dangerously incompetent industry (the nuclear industry), “if we cannot trust … operators to do the small things right, what confidence can we have in their ability to ward off or survive the worst?”
In these troubling times, our hearts and minds are focussed on peace and security, both here at home and around the world. There is much that Canadian governments can – and must – do to make our water safe. We are getting this message out in our communications with water utilities and municipal officials, in our intervention at the Walkerton Inquiry, in articles in the national press, and in an upcoming book on the subject. Now, more than ever before, we understand how vigilant we must be.