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Wednesday 16 November 2011

Grade of B Doesn't Hold Water.

If you're a regular reader here then you will know how I feel about the state of the drinking water systems in NL. In case you don't know I've written about it a couple of times, so have a look at this, and these two here and here. But today there's good news! As it turns out our drinking water supply is in good hands, and as a province we get an overall grade of B! Well, now I feel so much better! A group called Ecojustice has completed a 3rd report card on drinking water for all provinces and territories across the country. The report, titled Waterproof 3, is available in full here.

The Telegram has a story on the front page today with quotes from the Environment Minister Terry French,  who is just tickled pink with the report: "I'm just delighted we've come from a D to a B. It's not lost on Government, the importance of having clean drinking water, and we're going to continue to invest and work with the communities so we can get to where we need to be."

Have I been remiss in my past critiques of our drinking water systems?

Before I take back all my previous criticisms that I've learned from people who live and deal with these water issues every day, why don't we have a detailed look at the report and see just how we managed to get a grade of B with so many ongoing boil orders.

Report Quote #1:
In other jurisdictions, consultation is not mandatory, but may be required on a case-by-case basis: 
• In Newfoundland and Labrador consultation opportunities will be determined by locally-based planning committees.
Locally based planning committees...yeah... There does indeed exist the possibility of establishing watershed protection committees but like many things a lack of mandatory regulations mean that in practical terms these committees are few and far between.

Regarding watershed plan reviews...
Report Quote #2:
Newfoundland and Labrador does not formally require updating but sets a target date of every five years.
So those critical watershed plans set a target date five years for review but are not mandatory. I'm sensing a trend...

Report Quote #3:
In Newfoundland and Labrador, where water system operators are not required to test for microbiological contamination, the province operates a sampling program.
So is a sampling program appropriate to replace microbiological contamination testing? Seems like something we should be required to test for doesn't it?

Report Quote #4:
This year, only Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories lack operator certification programs.
On this point the Minister of Environment is clear. The Telegram article reports that he indicated that we certainly do have a certification program! But it's not mandatory. And the trend continues.

Report Quote #5:
This year we find that Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan require the reporting of water quality results to residents or the posting of the information online.
This is a positive note but it doesn't tell the whole story. Many households don't have internet access and the reporting of results usually means a sheet of paper posted at the town hall. Not exactly broad reaching reporting.

On Transparency and accountability in NL
Report Quote #6:
There is no requirement for individual systems to provide public reporting. The provincial government does not produce an annual report regarding drinking water quality trends or testing results. According to the Department of Environment, the contracts for water systems require operators to maintain contingency plans and to notify the Department when emergencies occur.
So, no required public reporting (note the apparent contradiction to the last quote), no annual report on quality or test results and the (possibly uncertified) system operators have to notify the Dept. in case of emergency. Well now I feel safe.

Those are but 6 examples pulled from the report that indicate that what we have is a system that has very few mandatory regulations. There may be good policies in place but they are largely voluntary or suggested and certainly not required.

Page 9 of the Report has the following list.
The key elements of a comprehensive multi-barrier approach include:
• the protection of water sources to keep raw water as clean as possible;
• adequate treatment including disinfection and additional processes to remove or inactivate contaminants;
• well-maintained distribution systems;
• strong water quality standards;
• rigorous enforcement including regular inspection, testing, monitoring;
• proper operator training and certification;
• public notice, reporting, and involvement;
• contingency planning;
• ongoing research; and
• adequate funding for all elements.
If those are the 10 key elements, how do we fare based on the reality of drinking water systems in NL?
  1. We do have watershed protection regulations: Pass
  2. Treatment? Check the list of Boil orders: Fail
  3. Practically no preventative maintenance: Fail
  4. Water quality standards are reasonable: Pass
  5. Enforcement doesn't exist: Fail X 10
  6. Operator Training. Improving but not mandatory: Marginal Fail
  7. Reporting is sub-par: Fail
  8. Contingency planning: Marginal Pass
  9. Research? If it is happening it is not being passed to municipalities: Fail
  10. Funding is severely inadequate!: Fail
In the end when you look at the grade of B, and the details of the report and attempt to balance it with the reality of the drinking water systems and boil water orders in NL, something is amiss. There is a scary and dangerous lack of mandatory regulations around drinking water safety in NL and we don't deserve a B, we deserve an F.

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