By The Canadian PressOct. 19, 2006TORONTO - The legal legacy of the Walkerton tainted-water tradegy will leave Ontario with the safest drinking water in the world, Environment Minister Laurel Broten said Wednesday as the province passed a new law that critics fear will prove a crushing financial burden to farmers and rural communities.
The Liberals used their majority in the legislature to give third and final reading to the Clean Water Act, a bill designed to address the faults that allowed deadly E. coli to leach into the water supply in Walkerton, Ont., six years ago, killing seven people and sickening more then 2,000.
Broten defended the bill, saying that it addresses concerns raised by Justice Dennis O'Connor, who presided over an inquiry into the tradegy and presented his final report and recommendations in 2002.
"Passing of the legislation meets 12 of Justice O'Connor's recommendations and ensures that Ontarians have some of the best, well-protected drinking water in the world." Broten said.
"And we're going to keep it that way, because what the Clean Water Act is all about is preventing contamination in the first place.
"The bill, which now only needs royal assent to become law, requires inspectors to investigate potential risks to water sources ranging from the Great Lakes to underground streams, and to take steps to prevent any contamination.
Broten said the Liberal government has provided funding to make sure there are enough inspectors and other resources to ensure the clean Water Act does what it's suppose to do.
"Some $120 million is going to be spent on the science of assessing those risks," she said. "We have more drinking water inspectors out ensuring that we have safe, clean drinking water."
Two groups - the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Environmental Defence - applauded Wednesday's passage of the bill, but both warned that the law itself doesn't yet include the detailed regulations that are expected to give it teeth.
"There is concern that the governement hasn't addressed many recommendations made by environmental and citizens groups," said CELA's Jessica Ginsburg in a statement.
"Essentially, we're being asked to take a leap of faith that the regulations will provide for the meaningful implementation of source water protection.
"The Sierra Legal Defence Fund, which last week gave Ontario the top mark in Canada - an A-minus - for regulations on drinking water, said by passing the Clean Water Act, "Ontario has moved from the top of the class to a class by themselves.
"But the new law applies only to municipal wells, which means thousands of residents who rely on private wells won't have their water supply protected, the Ontario Groundwater Association warned.
"Wells for many private residences, farms, small industrial areas, will not fall within the well-head protection areas," said association vice-president Craig Stainton.
"Many thousands of people in this province will have no one to actually tell them what's wrong, or help them with protection of the water in thier well.
"Broten said the province had also provided intital funding of $7 million to help municipalities implement the act and identify risks to the local water supply, but the Opposition said there wasn't enough money to help farmers cope with the costs of complying with the bill.
"The province is not flowing adequate funding to help out farmers and rural municipalities cope with the increased costs," said Conservative cirtic Tim Hudak.
"This is very much a government that has turned its back on small town Ontario and the agriculture sector, and this is another cost on their backs.
"The New Democrats complained that the bill won't take effect right away and will be phased in, and called excluding private wells a big mistake.
"It's a big (loophole), and we wanted universal coverage," said NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns.
"A municipality in its own area can probably designate a well, but let's say you're in an unincorporated area - you're on your own."
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