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Report Says Ontario Ignoring Ecosystem
The Canadian Press

TORONTO -- The Ontario government has ''stumbled badly'' when it comes to monitoring rural water quality, the province's environmental commissioner said Thursday, suggesting it has failed to heed the lessons of the Walkerton tragedy.

In a toughly worded annual report, Gord Miller noted the Environment Ministry has no data on pollution of rural streams and rivers and criticized the ministry for failing to enforce federal laws on water pollution.

''Walkerton is a terrible reminder that degradation in background water quality has very serious consequences,'' said Miller, referring to the southwestern Ontario town where seven died and hundreds became sick after drinking manure-tainted water.

''I'm surprised that something hasn't moved forward in the two years since Walkerton.''

Saying he suspected the water-quality problem ''may be worse than ever,'' Miller said he had ''grave'' concerns about enforcement of environmental laws and suggested the government had misled the public into believing that it's acting effectively.

Miller also criticized the province for failing to protect the ecosystem, leaving several animal and plant species at risk.

''What's most frustrating is that Ontario has made international, national and provincial commitments to conserve biodiversity,'' said Miller.

''Those commitments are being completely ignored.''

Animals ranging from woodland caribou to eastern wolves and lake trout are all at risk, said Miller, who noted the Ministry of Natural Resources doesn't even have a comprehensive biodiversity strategy.

While Environment Minister Chris Stockwell said he hadn't read the report, he nevertheless said he thought it was ''fairly favourable.''

But opposition critics and environmentalists were scathing in their assessment of the Conservative government's performance.

They noted Miller's findings that the government is not properly monitoring the pollution of water sources, particularly in southwestern Ontario, despite the Walkerton deaths.

''They haven't learned any lessons from Walkerton,'' said Liberal Jim Bradley.

''We have a Ministry of the Environment today that is understaffed, underfunded and with no clout and very secretive and that comes from the leadership of the government.''

New Democrat Marilyn Churley criticized Miller for being too protective of the government and suggested he should have ''come out swinging.''

''It's very clear from this report that another Walkerton could happen.''

Environmental lawyer Paul Muldoon called it ''perilous'' how slowly the government had reacted to the recommendations that flowed from a judicial inquiry into the Walkerton disaster, particularly in protecting water sources.

''We don't see any plan. We don't see any framework. We don't see any agenda of what's going to happen,'' said Muldoon.

Miller also slammed Environment Ministry officials for undermining the public's right to know about environmental issues - in violation of the law.

''This is profoundly important,'' Miller said. ''This type of thing deeply disturbs me because people are being denied basic information that they're obliged to receive under law.''

Stockwell said he has directed ministry staff to co-operate fully to ''ensure that doesn't happen again.''

Miller also slammed the government over what he called ''grand experiments,'' including one by the Ministry of Natural Resources to allow large swaths of northern forests to be clear cut.

While the ministry insists the clearcutting would emulate natural fire patterns, Miller warned of ''significant pitfalls'' to the approach and said it ''carries the risk of worsening the impacts'' of logging.

''It is a massive experiment on public lands.''

Dan McDermott of the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada said the report ''outlines the failure of the Ontario government to protect our water, our air, our biodiversity and indeed our lives.''

© Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press

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