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TORONTO - In a bid to prevent another Walkerton tragedy, Ontario's Conservative government yesterday unveiled its long-awaited plan to stop the province's water supply from becoming contaminated by farm manure.

Chris Stockwell, the Minister of Environment and Energy, and Helen Johns, the Minister of Agriculture, said the province will hold public consultations across Ontario this fall with an eye to having new regulations on everything from manure-spreading to barn construction phased in starting next year.

Under the Nutrient Management Act, all farms across the province would be bound by the same curbs on agricultural waste, which directly contributed to the contamination of Walkerton's water supply by E. coli bacteria in May, 2000, killing seven people.

"Obviously, we're making decisions today based on the fallout of Walkerton. We are expecting the decisions that we take will allow us not to have a repeat of Walkerton," Mr. Stockwell said.

"Can I give you a categoric answer of no it wouldn't have happened [if the planned regulations had existed two years ago]? I can't do that. Would it be less likely to happen? Yes, I think it would be very much less likely to happen when this whole mechanism is in place."

Ms. Johns said farmers and municipalities are being consulted to ensure the regulations "protect our water and the environment as well as maintain the competitiveness of agri-food industry," but she emphasized all parts of Ontario must be abide by the same rules.

"The regulations ... have a standardized effect across the province, so what happens is the bylaws that are in place in local municipalities will be replaced by a standardized set of provincial regulations," she said.

Mr. Stockwell also announced the Conservatives' Safe Drinking Water Act will be introduced in the Ontario Legislature in the upcoming session of Parliament, which begins on Sept. 23.

That legislation -- based on a bill designed by Marilyn Churley, an NDP MPP -- would enshrine in law the right of Ontarians to clean and safe drinking water. In an unusual move, Ms. Churley was singled out for praise by Ernie Eves, the Premier, during a speech on Monday to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

The act would create a water council to conduct research, advise the government and establish an electronic registry of water-quality tests so consumers could check the water in their area.

Both the Safe Drinking Water Act and nutrient-management measures were recommended by Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor in his sweeping assessment of government water policy and practices in the wake of Walkerton.

While Ms. Churley said she was heartened that her bill is being adopted, she was less impressed with the government's manure scheme because local municipalities would no longer have control over large farms in their area.

"One size does not fit all when it comes to the so-called factory farm. If the regulations or rules are stringent enough, I would expect that some of those farms that are there already wouldn't be allowed," she said.

"But my concern is that the rules aren't going to be tough enough."

Delton Becker, a Grey County councillor, said rural municipalities welcome province-wide standards although there remains concern of relinquishing some local authority.

"This is a hot issue all across Ontario because with livestock operations ... there's potential for water pollution," said Mr. Becker, whose county neighbours Walkerton.

"[But] we need more time to look at the regulations ... before we can really say whether we're happy ... or not."

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