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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Bwa of the day - AFTER WALKERTON - ONTARIO WATER 2012 - 9/19/12

Sean Aylward

Today Ontario's environment commissioner Gord Miller slammed government ministries for lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for their legal obligation to include the public in their decision-making processes. "The Ministries are hiding things," Miller said to reporters today at the press conference for the release of his annual report.

This reporter and Gordon Miller share an issue

In a follow up to WaterToday's piece examining provincial oversight of water quality in Quebec, WaterToday decided to investigate Ontario's methods, procedures, and publications for boil water advisories. Specifically, we wanted to know why Ontario only posts boil water advisories for eastern-Ontario? Were the rest of the boil water advisories being hidden or just not recorded?

Boil water advisories fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry of health in Ontario as of 2007. Prior to that the ministry of environment was responsible for publishing boil water advisories across the province and posted all current advisories on their website. Under the ministry of health (MOH) the duties of reporting water advisories is delegated to the province's 14 regional health units and only Eastern Ontario Unit post advisories in an easy-to-find spot on their website.

WaterToday asked to speak with an official at the MOH to explain how this procedure works. We were told that we could not have direct access to the people in the know and had to funnel our questions through their media relations department. 3 questions were sent to them. Here are the questions, the responses received a week later, and our take.

Email Q&A with Ontario's ministry of health sent on Sept 12, 2012 :

    Q - Prior to the decentralization of the health authority in Ontario, the province used to publish BWAs online through the Ministry of Environment website. I understand that BWAs are the responsibility of the individual health units now, and I'm sure they are doing their job of broadcasting them in their communities but as a public service surely these BWAs are published somewhere for public information (visitors, non-residents). If there is a website could I please be provided the URL?

    A - The Ministry of Health and Long-term Care uses the Drinking Water Advisory Reporting System (DWARS) to capture all reports of advisory notices issued by local boards of health to the owners and operators (usually municipalities) of drinking water systems. Boil Water Advisories are included in these reports.

    Q - The Eastern Ontario Health Unit is the only health unit in Ontario that posts current boil water advisories, is this because they are the only ones? If not, is this because it is the policy of the Ontario government to not publish small system drinking water advisories?

    A - The Ministry does not currently post reports of advisory notices on its website.

    Q - Is the ministry able to tell us the number of current boil water advisories in Ontario?

    A - DWARS [Drinking Water Advisory Reporting System] indicates that as of August 24, 2012 there are 266 active boil water advisory notices in place in Ontario. Please note that active advisory notices are ever changing as new notices are issued and existing ones are rescinded.

After a full week of investigating the ministry sent a month old stat on 'current' boil water advisories. In comparison with other provinces this is abysmal.

BC posts boil water advisories in a similar fashion to Ontario, delegated to 7 regional health authorities which all clearly post them on their individual websites.

Quebec posts all current boil water advisories on the ministere de Development Durable, Environment et Parcs's website.

Saskatchewan posts all current boil water advisories as well as all precautionary boil water advisories on their saskH2O website.

This suggests that the province with the largest population drinking from the largest number of water systems gives the least information to its constituents about the quality of their drinking water.

WaterToday read through the Drinking Water Advisory Reporting System User Guide to better understand how it works and why the most recent data they could provide us was a month old. Under chapter 1 section 4 the guide states:

    The MOHLTC has developed and implemented a web-based data management system for local BOH to report information pertaining to the issuance of drinking water advisory notices or orders and details about corrective actions. Boards of health must report when an advisory notice is issued to users of a drinking water system, and when that advisory notice has been rescinded.

The guide then provides a link to their site stating: "Local BOH can access the real-time online reporting system at the following URL:" but what about regular citizens? The link leads to a login page that is closed to the public. So Ontario is recording and posting boil water advisories online but it is for their eyes only.

Our take:

How does hidden current boil water advisories save my kids from drinking tainted water?

If the province has all the information, why not share it? What are they hiding?

The Walkerton Inquiry found that lives could have been saved if the residence of the community had been informed about the drop in quality of the water sooner. If informing people saves lives? How can this system that we've just described be the best the government is doing?

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