Ten Years after the Walkerton Tragedy

May 27th, 2010 by Paula Boutis

The contamination of Walkerton’s well water has been back in the news lately as we are upon the 10 year anniversary of that community’s tragedy. The contamination of the water supply caused widespread illness in the community and even deaths.

The subsequent inquiry into the tragedy, lead by Justice Dennis O’Connor, dealt not only with the specific facts which lead to the contamination of the well water in Walkerton, but also with wider issues of concern regarding water safety and protection.

Ten years later, we have in force the Safe Drinking Water Act, Nutrient Management Act, and most recently, the Clean Water Act. All of these Acts deal with ways to protect our water quality.

An issue that remains very controversial is the spreading of “sewage biosolids”, onto farmlands as a means of fertilizing those lands. These materials are derived from our industrial sewage systems in large centres. In effect the human waste from our major cities ends up in “host communities” with nearby farmlands.

Besides the major nuisance factors associated with spreading of biosolids (smell, chief among them), some have also claimed that they and their farm animals have suffered health effects from the spreading of biosolids on farms near to them. One family in New Hampshire sued claiming their adult son’s death resulted from the spreading of sewage biosolids near to their home.  See http://www.olympus.net/community/oec/sldgbl.htm

Municipalities who are concerned both about their water quality and the comfort of their residents are stuck, however. They can’t ban the spreading of biosolids in their communities because the Nutrient Management Act prohibits municipal regulation on any issues related to “nutrients”, of which sewage biosolids are considered one.

What can farm municipalities do? Municipalities do have a right under the Safe Drinking Water Act to declare that waters must be potable, and so must meet minimum standards prescribed under that Act. Though this power would not allow a municipality to regulate biosolids another way, it does allow municipalities to protect their drinking water and may provide some mechanisms for municipalities to ensure the safety of their water supply from any number of potential drinking water threats, including biosolids.

In the end, however, the ultimate solution lies at getting to the root of the problem. Ditch our industrial sewage systems and start over with environmentally sound ways to manage human excrement, which ensure the safety of the waste and its subsequent uses. Sweden has been a leader in environmentally sound practices for managing human waste for several decades. Interested in learning more? See

http://www.ecoethic.ca/products_wl.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composting_toilet

In our very own Vancouver, an office complex on U.B.C.’s campus has set up a composting toilet system.  Check out:http://www.cityfarmer.org/comptoilet64.html

Another good reason for us to move away from this is just the extreme waste of water and the pressure it puts on our aquifers to sustain these systems, while likely harming fish and draining our drinking water supplies. Some of you may be familiar with the “Big Pipe” fight in York Region of a few years ago. See http://www.ottawasewergatefiasco.com/bigpipe-050119.htm. The pipe was ultimately approved and construction has begun, and it has not been without its problems.   For more details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_the_Oak_Ridges_Moraine#The_Big_Pipe

Our experts always say “it can be fixed, it can be mitigated, it can be regulated so it’s safe”, whatever “it” is. More than a hundred years into the industrial revolution, with the mess our environment is in, why should anyone believe them anymore?

– Paula

Filed in: Environment

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