Ontario's environmental neglect threatens human health: report

Changes to Ontario farming and well chlorination regulations have increased the chance people will get sick from contaminated water, says this year's annual report from Ontario's environment commissioner.

Changes to Ontario farming and well chlorination regulations have increased the chance people will get sick from contaminated water, says this year's annual report fromOntario's environment commissioner.

Commissioner Gord Millercitedin his report, released Tuesday, theWalkertontragedy six years ago, whendrinking water contaminated with manure killedseven people and sickened more than 1,000 others in the Ontario town.

In some cases, Ontario monitors the way farmers control manure run-off less closely now than it did before, the report says.

"Unfortunately … some of the changeshave weakened both accountability and the assurance that farmers are following the rules that protect human health," said a backgrounder attached to the report.

The annual commissioner's report monitors how well the province is complying with its Environmental Bill of Rights.

Miller's 2005/2006 report is titled Neglecting Our Obligations, and a news release said that refers not just to drinking water, but to "almost every area of environmental management."

That will hurt future generations, Miller said.

'Disturbing example' to industrial landowners

The report found that some government ministries even go beyond neglect.

Miller cited one example where the Ministry of Transportation polluted land it owned in Thunder Bay, then successfully lobbied to have the value of the land reassessed to $1.

"They argued that since they had made the land worthless by polluting it, they shouldn't have to pay taxes on it," Miller said in an addressat Queen's Park Tuesday. "This is a disturbing example for the province to set for industrial landowners."

Premier responds

Premier Dalton McGuinty responded Tuesday that the government has taken a number of actions to keep the province's environment safe and healthy.

He said the government has established a 1.8-million acre greenbelt to preserve farmland, created a new clean water act and started a bottle recycling effort through theliquor control board, to be launched shortly.

He added, "I think we've come really, really close to completing all of Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor's recommendations flowing from the Walkerton commission."

Miller's report says there are some areas where the province has taken positive steps, such as protecting biodiversity, protecting Ontario's wolf population and preserving conservation lands held by non-profit groups.

However, he cited a long list of areas where Ontario still needs to take action including:

Climate change adaptation– Miller linked this summer's violent windstorms and tornadoes to larger climatechange patterns. The storms each knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of residents.

"The point is that our infrastructure is designed for a climate that is no longer our climate," he said. "We must recognize that and begin to adapt."

Drinking water– Ontario lowered requirements for disinfecting new wells by chlorination to "inadequate" levels, Miller said.

In addition, regulations make it hard to prosecute those responsible for polluting drinking water wells with bacteria, nitrates or other contaminants.

Meanwhile, the government removed enforcement from regulations telling farmers how to apply manure to their fields in a way that reduces the risk of water contamination.

Garbage – The province is expanding the amount of waste sent to its aging landfills. But out-of-date inventories mean they don't know the sites' total waste capacity or whether the increase threatens human health.

The province also announced in 2004 that it would recycle or otherwise divert 60 per cent of its waste from landfills and incinerators by 2008. But it took no action to meet this goal until 2006.

Air quality – Onlyone to two per cent of industrial facilities are inspected each year to see if they are following rules regarding concentrations of pollutants.

And the Environment Ministry has not yet updated allowable levels for dangerous contaminants such as nickel even though it promised to do so up to 10 years ago.

Also, many industries still don't have caps for dangerous nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide gas emissions despite a new cap on those emissions.

Zoos – A recent audit showed 75 per cent of Ontario zoos are "dirty, barren and ramshackle" or otherwise do not meet basic animal welfare standards.

Environmental education – The report says environmental education in Ontario has fallen behind other provinces and U.S. states. It recommends that the Ministry of Education be subject to the Environmental Bill of Rights.