Canadian Consulting Engineer

Guidelines just don’t cut it

Walkerton and its tragically flawed water supply system (see page 40) has been hitting the headlines for over six month. In December, we were riveted again by images of the town's utilities manager, S...

January 1, 2001  By Bronwen Ledger

Walkerton and its tragically flawed water supply system (see page 40) has been hitting the headlines for over six month. In December, we were riveted again by images of the town’s utilities manager, Stan Koebel, and his brother Frank, giving testimony at the public enquiry. With astonishing frankness, sometimes sobbing, they confessed to having done things like falsified water tests, ignored broken chlorinators, and — most revealing of all — admitted that they were by no means qualified or knowledgeable enough to have been responsible for running this vital public works.

The Walkerton story captured the public imagination for more reasons than the human drama it afforded. For many people, the fatal bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 contamination that occurred in the small Ontario town has become the quintessential example of what can go wrong when governments decide to take a back seat. They see in this event all that is scary about cutbacks and downloading, privatization and increased outsourcing. Walkerton is a symptom of things spinning out of control.

Whether or not you agree with this outlook, the fact is that after the Walkerton deaths the Ontario government quickly moved to impose regulations on water treatment facilities where before it was content to rely on guidelines and voluntary compliance. Ironically, a government which came to power saying it wanted to cut red tape and intrude itself less into business and people’s lives, has decided it needs to be more vigilant and re-establish stricter controls in this matter of public health.

Hardly anyone these days believes we should return to the era of Big Government. We’ve all seen far too much government waste and mismanagement of funds. We know that bureaucracy unchecked is a severe drain on the economy. However, Walkerton has shown that there are areas, particularly in public safety and infrastructure — the very areas where professional engineers play a critical role — where government has to remain vigilant. Indeed, the more we divest infrastructure to private and corporate interests, the more we need governments to impose hard and fast rules to ensure that safety standards are met.

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And there’s no use having regulations, if ministries don’t have the manpower to enforce them. Last year the Provincial Auditor of Ontario reported serious shortfalls in the work of the provincial Ministry of the Environment in investigating contamination and spills. He found that a 25 per cent reduction in staff over the last four years had been a contributing factor in reducing the number of inspections the ministry could initiate. It was conducting 33 per cent fewer checks than in 1996. He found other startling failures: the ministry was not checking to see whether certificates of approval were up to date; it had failed to collect over $90 million in financial assurance from facility operators as required; it had failed to collect $10 million in fines, and it “usually learned of contaminated sites only after serious harm to the environment had already occurred.” The auditor also criticized the ministry for relying on voluntary compliance. This method evidently was not working since one-third of the violations were by repeat offenders.

Ministry staff to enforce rules come at a price — but so does non-compliance. So far, the bill for cleaning up Walkerton’s system is $11 million. Since the town can’t pay and its insurers refuse to, most likely the public purse will pick up the tab. Either way you spin it, a healthy environment and infrastructure are our lifeblood, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.Bronwen Ledger

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