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Great Lakes Article:

Ontario Will Spend Half Billion On Water Safety In 2 Years

By Richard Brennan
Queen's Park Bureau


The Ontario government will spend more than $500 million over the next two years to protect Ontario's drinking water, including hiring more inspectors.

"We are committed to ensuring that Ontario has the toughest policies in the world for safe, clean drinking water and will dedicate whatever resources are required to accomplish that goal," Finance Minister Janet Ecker said yesterday after delivering her first budget.

This is a direct response to both reports from Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's inquiry into the Walkerton water tragedy in which seven people died and more than 2,300 were made ill from drinking town water contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria.

"We have accepted all of his recommendations, and remain fully committed to their implementation. We are providing additional funding to more than double the number of inspectors to inspect municipal water systems," Ecker said. "The government will commit to an investment of over a half billion dollars in the next two years on clean, safe, drinking water for the people of Ontario."

The money is coming from across the government, much of it from OSTAR (Ontario Small Town and Rural program), a special fund created some years ago by the government to make improvements to small municipal water systems. About $174 million will come from this fund.

But critics says the money, which includes $245 million this year, is far short of the billions of dollars needed to upgrade Ontario's aging water and sewage treatment plants. O'Connor estimated a one-time cost of about $280 million for the province, municipalities and individuals to implement his recommendations, with ongoing costs of about $50 million.

"I think this government money is a drop in the bucket. It's not enough to ensure clean, safe drinking water in the province," New Democratic Party critic MPP Marilyn Churley said.

Critics also noted that even with 77 inspectors, up from 51, it's still a far cry from the more than 100 inspector positions that existed prior to the Tories slashing the environment ministry in 1996. The government's decision to cut spending by 40 per cent and staff by 50 per cent during its first mandate contributed to the death of seven people, the O'Connor report said.

O'Connor blamed the cuts for contributing to the Walkerton tragedy, especially the decision to close down provincially run water testing laboratories.

"The environmental issue for Ernie Eves is the sorry legacy of Walkerton and extended litany of promises that are unfulfilled, so we got more promises today. Big deal," Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty said. McGuinty said the government is simply restoring some of the $230 million taken out the environment ministry over the past six years.

Oakville Mayor Ann Mulvale, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, (AMO), said the two-year commitment "is an acknowledgment that they have a responsibility to partnership with us; we think that's good news."

The environment ministry's budget actually went up by only $31 million.

"If you look very closely at this budget you will find that this government is still investing less in the environment than when they came into office," Liberal critic MPP Jim Bradley (St. Catharines) said.
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