Blog: Ontario’s drinking water rules are not red tape


Opinion originally published December 21, 2018 by the Toronto Star.

A fierce debate was recently unleashed in Ontario when the provincial government introduced Bill 66, which is said to be about reducing “red tape.” As soon as someone says those words, most people are all for it. Who hasn’t been frustrated by some long, obscure form to fill out at one point or another?

But Ontarians must ask: what, exactly, is the red tape being addressed by Bill 66? Would you be supportive if the red tape being removed is intended to protect something you care about, such as drinking water safety? Or the Greenbelt? Or liveable communities? Unfortunately, all three matters are being targeted by Bill 66.

We have had the misfortune to see firsthand the human health consequences of red tape reduction because we acted as counsel for the Concerned Walkerton Citizens in the Walkerton Inquiry. We knew as soon as that tragedy started unfolding in May 2000, when seven people died and thousands of children and adults became severely ill after drinking contaminated water, that our number one suspect was red tape reduction.

This suspect was found guilty in the form of the very thorough and well-documented Walkerton Inquiry conducted by Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor. His report found that the Ontario government’s red tape reduction culture (and related budget cuts and provincial staff reductions) led directly to the suffering and loss of lives in Walkerton when its drinking water supply became massively and fatally contaminated with dangerous pathogens. Red tape reduction was not a side issue that might have contributed a little bit to the catastrophe. It was the central factor.

In an appalling epilogue, red tape reduction at the federal level played a role in a more recent incident in Quebec that took 47 innocent lives: the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in 2013. Once again, red tape reduction was not a bit player in that event; it was front and centre as a factor leading to a “not if but when” scenario. In this case, the Lac-Mégantic downtown was obliterated in an inferno following the derailment of a train carrying highly flammable Bakken oil.

The arguments that were mounted to rationalize red tape reduction prior to these disasters are frighteningly similar to the ones we are hearing today in Ontario. “Economic investment requires us to cut back on our rules and regulations.” “Regulations are stifling business.” “We need to streamline requirements for business.”

This rhetoric is then followed by a series of actions that are now being repeated in Ontario. Orders to government employees to make lists of regulations. Passage of laws getting rid of many of those regulatory requirements. Assurances that the public officials in charge will never allow an unsafe situation to arise. These kinds of claims were proven false in the Walkerton and Lac-Mégantic cases.

Buried within Bill 66, and premised on the mantra of red tape reduction, is one of the most objectionable proposals in decades: a legislative proposal to set aside one of the core protections that arose directly from the Walkerton Inquiry. In particular, Bill 66 includes in a list of red tape items a key section of the province’s Clean Water Act that presently protects all municipal drinking water sources in Ontario from some of the most serious hazards and threats.

If a municipality passes an “open for business planning by-law” under the proposed law, Bill 66 removes the current legal requirement that municipal land use decisions must conform to significant threat policies in source protection plans approved under the Clean Water Act. This exemption opens the door to large-scale industrial development in vulnerable areas that may threaten groundwater or surface water resources.

By any objective standard, laws that protect drinking water, regulate rail safety or control hazardous chemicals are not red tape. Instead, they are essential safety requirements that we expect governments to enact, enforce and maintain in order to protect the public interest. This is not just an issue that affects Walkerton citizens, as Mr. Justice O’Connor found that the conditions leading to that public health disaster were rampant across Ontario.

Therefore, in accordance with Walkerton Inquiry recommendations, governments of all stripes moved fast to pass new laws (including the Clean Water Act) to fix the drinking water safety net across Ontario. It’s not acceptable to now start dismantling that safety net today under the guise of reducing red tape.


Theresa McClenaghan is the executive director and counsel at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). Richard Lindgren is a CELA lawyer.