You would imagine that having a drink of water from your tap would not cause reason for concern, however for residents of Winnipeg this has been a reality this past week.
Winnipeg has been hit since Tuesday evening with a precautionary boil-water advisory which was ordered by the province after six of 39 city water samples collected Monday tested positive for coliform bacteria.
Federal health guidelines prevent provincial health officials from lifting a boil-water advisory until two sets of samples, collected 24 hours apart, are clean. The City of Winnipeg is working with the Medical Officer of Health, Manitoba Health and the Office of Drinking Water to identify the cause of the atypical test results.
Ontario is looking to change its standards. The Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is proposing to stiffen the acceptable levels of some contaminants in piped drinking water, and to adopt standards for other as yet unregulated chemicals.
The new standards would likely require municipalities, which treat and distribute drinking water, to install new or upgraded treatment technology. Most of us (who do not own private wells) would therefore pay more for cleaner drinking water.
The changes will amend Ontario Regulation 169/03—Drinking Water Standards [http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/regs/english/elaws_regs_030169_e.htm] under the Safe Drinking Water Act [http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_02s32_e.htm] These standards don’t apply to bottled water – another reason to drink tap water instead.
The Ministry has posted a document on the EBR notice called “Technical Discussion Paper on Proposed Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards” [http://www.downloads.ene.gov.on.ca/envision/env_reg/er/documents/2014/012-1594.pdf] which provides an overview of the process used by the Ministry in developing the proposed standards.
The proposed changes for chemicals noted in the document are based on the same kinds of concerns; what level of protection from cancer-causing chemicals can we technically achieve at a cost we are prepared to pay? For example, the MOECC suggests that lowering the standard for arsenic from 0.025 mg/L to 0.010 mg/L will reduce the excess lifetime cancer risk associated with drinking water containing arsenic from 80 additional cancers in a population of one million to 33 such cancers. But what else could municipalities do, to promote human flourishing, with the money that will now be spent on additional treatment? And will having to pay more for drinking water adversely affect the health of the poor in other ways? The MOECC never analyses these questions.
According to the MOECC’s posting, the ministry anticipates an additional stakeholder consultation regarding the sampling, testing and reporting requirements, and the categories of drinking water systems affected as prescribed by Ontario Regulation 170/03 (Drinking Water Systems) at a future date.
A Big Loss for Environmental Justice
Cape Breton residents who launched a class-action lawsuit claiming the Sydney tar ponds exposed them to contaminants will not have their case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned the certification of a class-action lawsuit in December, 2013.
Lawyers for the provincial and federal governments successfully argued that the case should not be certified because there were too many differences in the individual residents’ cases for the matter to be heard as a class action. The reality is, pollution can harm people differently and the steel mill may be reasonably linked to an array of harms, including different health problems.
The Court also ordered the residents to pay more than $730,000 in costs. This costs award alone could have a significant chilling effect on future tort actions.
The Supreme Court of Canada, keeping with the status-quo, didn’t reveal the reasoning behind its decision not to hear the tar ponds class-action. Lawsuits can proceed on an individual basis.