We use cookies to customise content for your subscription and for analytics.
If you continue to browse the International Law Office website, we will assume you are happy to receive all of our cookies. For further information please read our Cookie Policy.

Death by Water - International Law Office

International Law Office

Environment & Climate Change - Canada

Death by Water

September 18 2000


Walkerton Ontario has become synonymous with the dangers posed by contaminated drinking water. Walkerton is a small municipality that derives its drinking water from municipal wells. As a result of contamination by E Coli, hundreds of people became ill and a number of people died. The illnesses and deaths are directly attributable to the contamination of the municipal water supply.

The effect of this tragedy has been to highlight concerns nationally regarding the safety of drinking water. In response to public concerns regarding the safety of drinking water, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) conducted inspections of a large number of municipal water facilities and identified approximately 50 municipalities with various deficiencies related to their water supply and treatment systems. It is widely expected that with more inspections, more municipal water supply systems will be identified as being deficient.

Although the water supply system in Walkerton was municipally owned and operated, the provincial government has come under a great deal of criticism for reducing the number of inspectors of water supply systems, eliminating provincial labs for water-quality testing, and generally reducing the number of staff at the MOE. Critics feel that these actions make the provincial government responsible for the tragedy in Walkerton.

Stunned by this criticism, the Ontario government has initiated several actions.

First, Justice Dennis O'Connor of the Ontario Court of Appeal has been appointed as the commissioner of a public inquiry, which will examine the circumstances giving rise to the tragedy in Walkerton. The Commission of Inquiry is expected to conduct a broad ranging inquiry into the cause of the events, including actions of municipal officials and the actions or inaction of the provincial government.

In addition to ordering the Commission of Inquiry, the province will provide compensation for victims. This will include emergency relief for individuals and local businesses, and compensation for individuals who either became sick or lost loved ones as a result of the contaminated water supply.

Finally, the provincial government has issued a new Drinking Water Regulation that includes the following four mandatory requirements:

  • All laboratories and water treatment plant testing facilities that perform drinking-water tests must be accredited. The accreditation will include certification for all tests that fulfil the requirements of the Ontario Drinking Water Standards.

  • Municipalities must inform the MOE if they change the private laboratory facility that tests their water. This requirement will allow the MOE to ensure that the new laboratories are fully aware of their roles and obligations.

  • All water treatment facilities must have their certificates of approval reviewed at least once every three years.

  • If any laboratory finds that a test result indicates unsafe drinking-water quality, it must immediately inform the MOE and the medical officer of health, as well as the municipal water facility operator.

For the first time in Ontario, the regulation makes requirements with respect to water treatment mandatory. Previously, the Ontario Drinking Water Objectives were the administrative basis on which water treatment facilities were regulated. The new regulation now makes these requirements law. The Ontario Drinking Water Objectives have been replaced by the Ontario Drinking Water Standards, which include 84 new, revised or reaffirmed drinking-water standards. These standards also include a revised chlorination procedure for waterworks that require approval.

Additional requirements spelled out in the regulation include the following:

  • regular and frequent sampling and testing of water;

  • stringent treatment requirements for all drinking water;

  • quarterly public quality reports from large waterworks; and

  • public access to all records of large waterworks.

These requirements will apply to municipal waterworks requiring approval under the Ontario Water Resources Act. At the same time through Operation Clean Water, the government is also developing testing and reporting requirements and a proposed regulation for small waterworks (ie, those that provide water to the public but use less than 50,000 litres per day).

In addition to announcing the proposed new regulations, the provincial government will also soon announce financial support for water and sewer infrastructure to ensure that municipalities can comply fully and quickly with new water regulations. The provincial government also anticipates moving toward full-cost pricing for water and sewer services as a fundamental principle of its strategy. This will mean that water users will pay both the day-to-day operating cost of water treatment and their long-term repair and upgrading capital costs, thereby giving municipalities the ability to make the necessary investments to ensure the quality of water.

The events in Walkerton are tragic. Yet at the same time, these events have focussed attention on the need to ensure an adequate supply of safe drinking water. It can be expected that the events in Walkerton will have a far-reaching impact in Canada and that governments will be forced to take action to ensure that their citizens are supplied with safe drinking water.


For further information on this topic please contact Harry Dahme at Gowling Lafleur & Henderson by telephone (+1 416 862 4300) or by fax (+1 416 862 7661) or by e-mail (harry.dahme@gowlings.com).

The materials contained on this web site are for general information purposes only and are subject to the disclaimer.


Comment or question for author

ILO provides online commentaries as specialist Legal Newsletters. Written in collaboration with over 500 of the world's leading experts and covering more than 100 jurisdictions, it delivers individually requested information via email to an influential global audience of law firm partners and international corporate counsel. Please click here to register for the service.

The materials contained on this website are for general information purposes only and are subject to the disclaimer.

ILO is a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. In-house corporate counsel and other users of legal services, as well as law firm partners, qualify for a free subscription. Register at www.iloinfo.com.