B.C. not pro­tect­ing drink­ing wa­ter enough, re­port says

The Prince George Citizen - - News - Dirk MEISSNER

VIC­TO­RIA — The sys­tem of ac­count­abil­ity to mon­i­tor pro­tec­tion of drink­ing wa­ter in Bri­tish Columbia is of grave con­cern and doesn’t ap­pear to be a Min­istry of Health pri­or­ity, says the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral.

Carol Bell­ringer says in an au­dit re­port re­leased Tues­day that the health min­istry and the provin­cial health of­fi­cer are not suf­fi­ciently en­sur­ing the safety of drink­ing wa­ter for the peo­ple in B.C., and she rec­om­mends a lead­er­ship overhaul and de­vel­op­ment of a strate­gic pro­tec­tion plan.

Her re­port says there hasn’t been a known out­break of wa­ter borne ill­ness since 2004, but one con­tam­i­na­tion event can harm many peo­ple.

“Over­all, (the) Health (Min­istry) and the provin­cial health of­fi­cer’s ac­count­abil­ity to en­sure drink­ing wa­ter was pro­tected is of grave con­cern,” the re­port says. “We’re mak­ing eight rec­om­men­da­tions. Five are to the Health (Min­istry) and in­clude pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship to co-or­di­nate the min­istries, un­der­tak­ing a leg­isla­tive re­view, iden­ti­fy­ing risks and de­vel­op­ing a strate­gic plan, and re­port­ing out to the pub­lic.”

The re­port rec­om­mended the provin­cial health of­fi­cer im­prove over­sight and mon­i­tor­ing of drink­ing wa­ter safety.

Al­most 20 years ago, in the ru­ral com­mu­nity of Walk­er­ton, Ont., more than 2,300 peo­ple were sick­ened from E. coli con­tam­i­nated drink­ing wa­ter and seven peo­ple died.

An in­quiry later pro­duced rec­om­men­da­tions that in­flu­enced drink­ing wa­ter pol­icy across Canada, Bell­ringer’s re­port says.

One rec­om­men­da­tion calls for uni­ver­sal adop­tion of the multi­bar­rier ap­proach to safe drink­ing wa­ter, which re­duces con­tam­i­na­tion risks, says the re­port.

Bell­ringer said cli­mate change, in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity and pop­u­la­tion growth are all hav­ing im­pacts on B.C.’s drink­ing wa­ter, but the gov­ern­ment has not been keep­ing up.

“We found the Min­istry of Health has not been as vig­i­lant about pro­tect­ing our drink­ing wa­ter as it has in the past,” said Bell­ringer in a tele­phone news con­fer­ence.

The min­istry was meant to pro­vide lead­er­ship and co-or­di­na­tion but over time that lead­er­ship has waned, she said.

The re­port says it found no re­port­ing on out­comes of ac­tions the health min­istry had taken to pro­tect drink­ing wa­ter from 20162018.

“This may be be­cause health had not iden­ti­fied drink­ing wa­ter as a pri­or­ity area,” says the re­port.

The Min­istry of Health said in re­sponse to the au­dit that it ac­cepts a gov­ern­ment-wide com­mit­ment to a drink­ing wa­ter strat­egy will in­crease pro­tec­tion.

The min­istry said it is de­vel­op­ing a wa­ter sys­tem risk man­age­ment plan fo­cused on “water­shed to tap; sink to water­shed.”

The au­dit cites sev­eral B.C. drink­ing wa­ter is­sues that sur­faced from in­suf­fi­cient mon­i­tor­ing and lead­er­ship.

The re­port says the Hull­car Valley area of the North Okana­gan had been on a wa­ter ad­vi­sory no­tice since 2014 due to el­e­vated lev­els of ni­trate con­cen­tra­tion in the drink­ing wa­ter. Con­fu­sion among var­i­ous gov­ern­ment min­istries re­sulted in poorly co­or­di­nated re­sponses to the wa­ter is­sue, says the re­port.

The re­port also notes un­re­solved con­cerns about drink­ing wa­ter pro­tec­tion in the Co­mox Valley that date back to 1963. It also points out a lack of gov­ern­ment guid­ance on wa­ter pro­tec­tion is­sues con­nected to a landfill op­er­a­tion in the Shawni­gan Lake water­shed on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

Cowichan Valley Green MLA So­nia Furste­nau, who rep­re­sents Shawni­gan Lake con­stituents, said in a state­ment that Bell­ringer’s re­port re­it­er­ated con­cerns of many com­mu­ni­ties that the gov­ern­ment is not do­ing enough to pro­tect drink­ing wa­ter.

“When it comes to wa­ter­sheds, the prov­ince and gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies are fail­ing to ful­fil their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” said Furste­nau. “In an era of cli­mate change, pro­tect­ing wa­ter be­comes even more im­por­tant.”

Bell­ringer’s re­port says con­tam­i­na­tion risks are in­ten­si­fied in B.C.’s small wa­ter sys­tems where gov­ern­ment over­sight has been lim­ited.

The re­port says of B.C.’s es­ti­mated 4,800 wa­ter sys­tems, 90 per cent are small and serve about 480,000 peo­ple.

CP PHOTO

Wa­ter is poured into a glass from a faucet in North Van­cou­ver on Tues­day. B.C. Au­di­tor Gen­eral Carol Bell­ringer re­leased a re­port on Tues­day say­ing the prov­ince isn’t do­ing enough to pro­tect drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity.

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