Part Two of Walkerton drinking water report released

May 29, 2002
The Walkerton Commission of Inquiry has released Part Two of its report on the water contamination and plans for the future safety of the drinking water.

By Sylvie Dale, Online Editor

May 29, 2002 -- The Part Two Report of the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry -- containing recommendations for the future safety of drinking water in Ontario -- was received by the Attorney General on May 23, 2002 and has been posted to its web site in English.

The Walkerton e. coli outbreak in May 2000 caused the deaths of seven people and the illnesses of more than 2,000.

Part One of the report concluded that the primary, if not the only, source of the contamination was manure that had been spread on a farm near a well known as Well 5, although there may have been other sources as well.

The manure was applied in late April 2000, before a period of significant rainfall occurring from May 8 to 12.

DNA typing of the animals and the manure on the farm revealed E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter strains on the farm that matched the human outbreak strains predominating in Walkerton in May 2000.

The Ontario Attorney General David Young ordered a formal inquiry into the outbreak and solutions for preventing such a disaster from happening again.

Part One, released January 14, 2002, discussed what happened in Walkerton and the impact the contamination had on the community. Part Two suggested some changes to make the system safer.

Dennis O'Connor, the Commissioner of Inquiry into the Walkerton drinking water tragedy and author of the reports, recommended that improvements be made to all of the main components of Ontario's water delivery system.

"However, readers should not conclude that Ontario's existing system needs radical reform," O'Connor wrote. "It does not. We can be proud of the high level of expertise and competence that our leading water providers exhibit. The challenge is to ensure that the best practices are implemented across the province."

A review of outbreaks in jurisdictions around the world shows that many of the failures that played a role in the Walkerton tragedy have also been contributing factors on other occasions.

O'Connor's recommendations were divided into five categories:
• Source protection
• Standards and technology
• Municipal water providers
• Provincial oversight
• Special cases

Source Protection

The report recommended that the Province adopt a watershed-based planning process, led by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) and by the conservation authorities (where appropriate), and involving local people.

The process should focus on developing a source protection plan for each watershed in the province. Large farms, and small farms in sensitive areas, would be required to develop water protection plans that are consistent with the watershed-based source protection plans.

Standards and Technology

The report recommended that Ontario's standards and technology be continually updated according to the most recent knowledge and experience, using transparent processes.

Municipal Water Providers

The report advised that all municipal water providers be required to adopt a quality management approach for their water systems. As a condition of provincial approval, municipalities would be required to have an accredited operating agency (either internal or external) and to have an approved operational plan for their water system. There would be mandatory training for all water system operators, and grandparented operators would be required to pass certification examinations within two years.

Provincial Oversight

The province should adopt a government-wide drinking water policy and a Safe Drinking Water Act for Ontario, and it should establish two specialized branches for watershed planning and for overseeing water systems, the report stated.

Special Cases

Special approaches are needed in two areas: small water systems and First Nations water supplies. For those small systems that are currently captured by regulatory standards, I recommend that

For small systems, the report urged the province to allow variances from regulatory standards only where the owner demonstrates that safety will not be compromised, and never for cost reasons alone.

For First Nations water supplies, the report advised the province to make available on request the services of the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), plus technical assistance and training.

The Part Two report is based on best practices found in other governments, such as Europe and Australia.

"Given the importance of water industry practices to public health," O'Connor wrote, "the time has come to make quality management mandatory for municipal water providers."

Parts One and Two of the report are available at http://www.walkertoninquiry.com.

For further information about ordering a printed copy of the report, please contact Publications Ontario.

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