Ontario minister blames bureaucrats for water problem

Ontario minister blames bureaucrats for slow action on water problems

Ontario Environment Minister Chris Stockwell is pointing the finger at bureaucrats in his department for their slow action on the water testing problems affecting thousands of Ontario residents.

The Ontario Environment Ministry was tipped on May 23 about irregularities at the MDS Laboratory Services in London, Ont., but investigators didn't visit the lab until June 5, Stockwell said Thursday.

He said he found out about the situation Tuesday night, and it became public knowledge Wednesday.

"I would have only expected if they (the bureaucrats) had this kind of information on May 23rd, they would have acted with due dispatch and inform me. They didn't," Stockwell said.

"My goodness. When you get information like this, surely someone could pick up the phone and give me a call."

He said he is trying to find out what happened, and may make the results of the investigation public within days.

The ministry said the lab, which tested water for 67 communities, including major centres like London and Sarnia, failed to report bad water samples quickly enough, contrary to new rules put in place after the Walkerton tragedy.

The lab is also alleged to have conducted only a coliform bacteria test and not the additional E. coli test as required.

A little more than two years ago, seven people in Walkerton died and another 2,300 became sick after their drinking water became infected with E. coli bacteria.

There have been no reports of illness. But the Environment Ministry warned the 67 cities and towns that they should immediately re-sample their water.

Stockwell said it's important not to blow the incident out of proportion and panic the public.

"Let's just maintain our composure, put the information out there, have this emergency debate, go through question period so the information can become public and just calm their fears," he said.

But many community leaders say Ontario's government hasn't taken the report into the Walkerton tragedy to heart. They say it needs to overhaul water safety in the province and restore funding that was slashed in the mid-90s.

Mayor Chris Friel of Brantford said, "Quite frankly, I'm at the point now after two years of watching how politicized they have made water, they have no credibility with me as with most mayors in the province of Ontario."

The NDP's environment critic Marilyn Churley said responsibility lies at the top, with Stockwell. "We have lost confidence in you, minister," she said, asking him to resign.

Stockwell said he wouldn't.

Officials at the laboratory admit they had some administrative problems but say they followed proper testing and reporting procedures.