Water testing no place to seek savings

Among the axioms we live by in the world of journalism is that stories, editorials and columns we expect to cause a stir often don’t, while reports we deem innocuous can end up setting off a firestorm.

The former is the case with a piece I wrote in March for the Community News about a proposal to end free water testing for private wells in Ontario.

At meetings in March, councils within the watershed received a resolution from the Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Source Protection Region committee asking the province not to proceed with a recommendation to phase out free testing.

In a letter to provincial Minister of Agriculture Lisa Thompson, committee chair Matthew Pearson raised the spectre of the Walkerton water crisis, which left seven people dead and caused more than 2,000 to fall ill when E. coli entered the community’s water system.

“In the Walkerton Inquiry Report Part 2, Justice O’Connor concluded the privatization of laboratory testing of (municipal) drinking water samples connected directly to the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Walkerton Ontario in May 2000,” the letter states. 

“Twenty-four years later, there is a proposal to privatize water testing once again.”

The committee’s concern centres on a recommendation in the provincial Auditor General’s 2023 Value-for-Money Audit of Public Health Ontario (PHO), which was released in December. The auditor recommended PHO, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health (MOH), update and implement a laboratory modernization plan within 12 months to streamline the laboratory’s operations.

“This stemmed from a 2017 proposal by PHO, collaboratively with the MOH at the request of the deputy minister, to close six of the 11 public health laboratory sites (Hamilton, Kingston, Orillia, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins) and gradually discontinue private drinking water testing,” stated Pearson in the source protection committee’s letter.

Justification cited by the PHO and the MOH for the moves includes mitigating rising costs of maintaining facilities and establishing “a more efficient operating model that reduces the rerouting of samples to other PHO laboratory sites.”

About 50% of the Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley region population is serviced by private wells, Pearson notes in his letter.

That a body charged with ensuring drinking water safety drawing parallels with the tragic Walkerton situation didn’t generate a flood of letters to the editor and massive public outrage is, to us, surprising.

The proposed move has gone mostly under the radar. A Google search on the topic generates virtually no hits from major media sources and only a few articles in scattered community papers, plus a fairly comprehensive piece from the Cottage Life magazine website.

Among the stories that can be found, are a couple misleadingly headlined, “Ontario health minister vows not to end free private well water tests,” and “Province clarifies stance – says private well water testing will continue.”

Both articles are based on Sylvia Jones’ April 22 response to a question in the legislature, where she stated: “To be clear there are no changes to where the people of Ontario can get their well water tested for free in the province of Ontario. 

“The ministry has not made any decisions about changes to the provincial well water testing program, including which laboratories conduct testing of water samples,” Jones continued.

To take this as a “vow” not to end free private well testing would be akin to accepting at face value today, Premier Doug Ford’s oft-recanted pledge that his government “won’t touch the Greenbelt.”

One suspects Jones’ feeble assertions won’t be the end of this story.

To be clear, gratis or levied, private well owners should be getting testing done. However, the local source committee feels forcing well owners to pay a fee to commercial labs, would “disincentivize testing,” due both to the cost and the inconvenience involved.

“When water is not monitored regularly, there is no way to know the true quality of the water, which puts people at increased risk of becoming ill,” the committee letter states. “With private systems being stand-alone systems, any associated illnesses are isolated sporadic events and do not come to public attention like those seen during the Walkerton outbreak.”

Most would agree that seeking cost-saving efficiencies is within every government’s mandate. But nearly 25 years after the devastating events in Walkerton, it’s difficult to see this as a good place to look.