Bruce Ward
The Ottawa Citizen; with files from Citizen News Services
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Ontario ignores Walkerton advice
The political decision to allow a foreign company to draw extra water from the Tay River raises the spectre of another Walkerton tragedy, an Ottawa environmentalist warns.

"When you're talking about natural resources, especially something as utterly critical as fresh water, you can't afford to make arbitrary decisions," said Dan Brunton, a spokesman for Ottawa Riverkeeper Inc., an independent watchdog group. "I mean, good God, these guys brought us Walkerton. And they have the gall to do that to Perth."

Last Friday, Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell announced that he was overruling the province's Environmental Review Tribunal and bypassing the courts by allowing OMYA Canada Inc., a Swiss multinational company, to triple the amount of water it takes from the Tay near Perth.

"I'm really disturbed by the decision," said Mr. Brunton.

"I'm appalled by the process. It's an extraordinary day when a government which sets up a whole procedure for dealing with really complicated technical matters then decides, 'No we'll do it another way because some company complained to us.' Phenomenal."

In his inquiry into the E. coli tragedy that hit Walkerton in May 2000, Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor recommended the government implement legislation to protect water sources.

Seven people died in Walkerton as a result of E. coli bacteria in the water.

As part of that protection, Judge O'Connor recommended "water budgets" be prepared before permits were issued so that the environmental impact could be assessed.

But Mr. Stockwell's ruling pays no attention to that recommendation.

"Perth is on a limestone plain," explained Mr. Brunton. "It's an area with very shallow soil, and very shallow water bodies.

"If something goes awry with a well, maybe eight miles away someone else has a problem. The water regimes in the Perth-Smiths Falls area are very different from what they are around the city of Ottawa. We have much deeper soils, we have large aquifer because of a different geological history. "But up there, they're right up on the rock. So if they get another dry summer, they're in deep doo-doo."

Last February, after several witnesses testified that taking too much water could lower the level of the river and lakes upstream, Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal ruled the company could only take 1.5 million litres of water a day.

Mr. Stockwell's decision swells that amount to 4.5 million litres a day.

"There's no question they're pushing the envelope to the limit if not beyond," said Mr. Brunton.

"Groundwater is too important for political gamesmanship. It's like saying after Three Mile Island, 'Oh well, that was a fluke. It probably won't happen again,' and putting everything right back the way it was."

Mr. Stockwell has refused to discuss his decision on the basis it could end up before the courts.

"He's been advised by legal counsel not to make further comment and to let the decision stand on its own merits," said Heather Capannelli, an aide to the minister.

Mr. Brunton added that he was "really disappointed" in Conservative MPP Brian Coburn (Ottawa-Orléans).

"He's an intelligent guy. It's distressing to find him going along with so many arbitrary decisions. Maybe the government is saying since we've only got several months more in office, let's do what we can for our friends."

Mr. Stockwell's decision marks the fourth time in three years that the Conservative government has imposed its will and overruled local decision-makers in Eastern Ontario.

- In 2000, Queen's Park dissolved the entire board of Ottawa Hospital, and installed former Tory politician Dennis Timbrell to run the hospital. He was accountable only to cabinet.

- In August, 2001, the province brought in Merv Beckstead to oversee the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, stripping all power from trustees.

- Last summer, Queen's Park announced it would end cardiac surgery at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and send all patients to Toronto for surgery.

- As well, Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson vetoed changes in Ottawa's municipal ward boundaries last fall. In December, a judge ruled the minister had overstepped his authority. The issue will go to a hearing of the Ontario Municipal Board.

Mike Cassidy, who owns a cottage in the Perth area, blasted Mr. Stockwell's involvement in the Tay controversy.

"It's a wrong decision, not just for Tay and Lanark County, it's also a wrong decision in terms of environmental protection in Ontario," he said.

"It's a very serious weakening of the Environmental Bill of Rights."

He said the water will permanently leave the area -- a key part of the Rideau River watershed -- with unknown consequence.

"It's a consumptive use. The water doesn't go back into the Tay. We don't know enough to know what the impacts will be."