May 23, 2005

Ontario amends drinking water rules, proposes new policy for regulating systems

Amendments to Ontario's drinking water regulations, along with a proposed new policy addressing the regulation of drinking water systems in Ontario are aimed at correcting flaws in the existing regime in order to ensure drinking water safety at businesses and facilities that serve the public. Among other things, the government intends to make public health units responsible for ensuring that facilities such as churches, community halls, bed-and-breakfasts and tourist outfitters have safe drinking water.

The new approach will implement a risk-based, site-specific approach for all drinking water systems serving non-residential and seasonal uses. Health units would evaluate risks at individual systems and develop a system-specific water protection plan to ensure compliance with provincial drinking water quality standards.

Provincial Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky explained that the current regulations, put into effect in 2003, "often made things worse, especially in small communities. By listening to rural residents," she continued, "we now have an approach that will ensure drinking water safety without requiring unnecessary tests and treatment systems. We consulted extensively and, overwhelmingly, we heard a clear preference for public health units to oversee these systems."

Consequently, she added, "We will be investing in public health units to help them take over this responsibility and hire and train new inspectors."

This move follows extensive consultations with drinking water experts and with system owners and operators across the province, including 12 sessions held by the Advisory Council on Drinking Water Quality and Testing Standards in smaller communities. In response to the Council's advice, the Ministry will keep municipal and private water systems providing water to year-round residents, as well as certain designated facilities, under the existing regulation.

The Ministry of Environment will implement changes to the drinking water regulation in three stages.

First, new provisions are being introduced to regulate drinking water systems serving non-residential and non-municipal seasonal residential uses until their intended transfer to the public health units in the fall of 2006. Five categories of systems would be removed from O Reg 170/03 under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and placed under the new, separate regulation, with new testing requirements set out for these systems. Among the types of facilities affected would be municipally-owned airports, industrial parks, large sports and recreation facilities, community centres, motels and resorts.

The new requirements for these facilities are intended to reduce the financial burden on owners while maintaining a high level of public health protection. For example, only microbiological testing will be required, and owners will not have to install treatment equipment. Reporting requirements have been simplified, with annual reports to consumers no longer required. Requirements concerning adverse test results and corrective action still apply, however. Adverse test results (e.g. positive bacteria results) must be reported to the local health unit and the MOE's Spills Action Centre.

The regulatory proposal also includes amendments to O Reg. 170 removing the five system categories to be covered by the new regulation. Categories remaining under O Reg 170 will include municipal and private water systems providing water to year-round residential developments and designated facilities serving vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.

Because the five categories of facilities are required to meet the current regulatory requirements on June 1, the proposal has been posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry for a much shorter comment period (12 days), rather than minimum 30-day period normally required. This is in order to have the new regulation in force as close to June 1 as possible. The proposal may be viewed on-line at www.ene.gov.on.ca, click Environmental Registry (reference No RA05E0004). Comments are due by May 29, 2005.

The second stage will involve technical amendments to the existing regulation (O Reg 170) to improve its clarity, cost-effectiveness and efficiency for those systems it continues to regulate. The Ministry anticipates releasing these proposals for public consultation this summer.

Finally, this fall the Ministry will release for public consultation a new, risk-based regulatory framework detailing the roles and responsibilities of the public health units, as well as the requirements for owners and operators. Those consultations will also consider the Advisory Council's recommendation that system operators pay an inspection fee, which the Council suggested could be $250 to $375 a year. Municipalities and others will be consulted as the financial strategy for this program is developed.

"These changes are urgently needed," commented Theresa McClenaghan, counsel with the Canadian Environmental law Association. "Otherwise, users of small systems are not being adequately protected. We should have safe water no matter where we are in Ontario. These changes will mean that small system owners will know exactly what they are required to do in their own situation."

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