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Great Lakes Article:

New law to boost water safety
But Safe Drinking Water Act unlikely to provide legal recourse against government

By Colin Perkel The Canadian Press


Ontario residents are soon expected to get a Safe Drinking Water Act, but it's unlikely to give them any new right to sue the government if drinking tap water makes them sick.

The law is intended to enhance safety, not clog up the courts, says the man who oversaw the inquiry into the Walkerton water disaster.

"I do not think that creating new routes of access to the courts is the most effective way to advance these goals," Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor writes in his report released 10 days ago.

"Indeed, I would be concerned that a significant increase in legal actions would divert money and time away from those activities that are better able to address the safety of drinking water."

There is currently no comprehensive legal framework for regulating drinking water in Ontario and no clear line of responsibility.

A bill now before the legislature aims to address that problem and make Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to have such a law.

Crafted by New Democrat Marilyn Churley, it would also give people a new legal right to clean tap water, much like its 28-year-old federal counterpart in the United States.

While the Environment Ministry won't say what the final bill will look like, Churley says she hopes the provision in her bill does survive.

"No doubt about it: In Canada there are reservations about creating those kinds of rights," says Churley. "I still feel quite strongly that right should be created as it is in the U.S."

As O'Connor sees it, almost all water-related laws and regulations would be consolidated under four pieces of legislation, one being the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The act would cover all provisions dealing with the treatment and distribution of drinking water. The report recommends that the Ministry of the Environment oversee the enforcement of the law.

O'Connor recommends new legislation recognize the public is only "entitled to expect" safe water. The carefully chosen words are designed to avoid a substantive right that would lead to a rash of lawsuits.

Rick Lindgren, an Ottawa-based lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, notes that the U.S. law has not opened a floodgate of frivolous litigation, but says he could still live without a such a right in Ontario's Safe Drinking Water Act.

"If we have everything else that (O'Connor) recommends, we're probably not going to miss anything," said Lindgren.

"We're going to be getting the legal and political accountability through other means."

Nevertheless, people can still do as they've always done and and sue government or others for resulting damages if their tap water is poisoned.

O'Connor's recommendations flow from his exhaustive inquiry into the public-health catastrophe in Walkerton in May 2000, when farm manure washed into a well, poisoning the rural town's water system.


Identify the Ministry of the Environment as the lead ministry when it comes to drinking water.

Set out requirements of a licence for water system-owners and their permits to take water.

Describe a "standard of care" municipalities have in overseeing water delivery.

Set out accreditation standards for distribution systems and operator certification and training.

Set out rules for water monitoring, testing and reporting results, including rules for laboratories.

Create an office of the chief inspector of drinking water systems, with rules for inspections.

Set out clear rules and protocols for investigations and enforcement.

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