July 09, 2014

Councillors personally liable for drinking water

As published in The Erin Advocate

Anyone planning to run for Town Council should be aware of the new level of personal responsibility imposed by the provincial government for people who supervise water systems.

The “statutory standard of care” in the Safe Drinking Water Act was extended last year to municipal councillors, meaning that negligence can have legal consequences, including possible fines and imprisonment.

“If millions of Ontar­ians take clean, safe drinking water for granted, it is because so many dedicated public officials do not,” says John Stager, Chief Drinking Water Inspector of Ontario.

A Guide published by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) says it is a councillor’s legal duty to ask questions, get answers and be vigilant.

“You don’t have to be an expert in drinking water operations, but you do need to be informed about them. Seek advice from those with expertise and act prudently on that advice,” it says.

“Never take drinking water safety for granted or assume all is well with the drinking water systems under your care and direction.”

Veteran Erin Councillor John Brennan, who is seeking re-election, says potential candidates should not be scared off by water liability, “as long as you are doing your due diligence, doing the best you can to ensure the system is running properly.”

Staff make it very clear what is required of councillors, which includes attending meetings, getting reports about the water system and ensuring it is staffed and supervised by qualified persons.

“You don’t just sign off on these reports, you read and understand what’s going on,” said Brennan.

“Municipal ownership and the ensuing responsibilities should provide a high degree of public accountability in relation to the local water system,” said Justice Dennis O’Connor in the 2002 Report of the Walkerton Inquiry, the source of Ontario’s tougher standards. “Those who discharge the oversight responsibilities of the municipality should be held to a statutory level of care.”

When an incident occurs that may constitute a breach of the standard of care, the MOE will respond, gather evidence and decide if charges should be laid. It would then be up to the courts to determine if an offence has been committed, and whether penalties should be imposed. The maximum fine on first offence is $4 million and the maximum prison sentence is five years.

Staff and council comply with a broad range of provincial regulations, covering source protection in the area of municipal wells, health-based standards for treatment to neutralize hazards, maintenance of the delivery system to prevent re-contamination, regular testing and reporting, immediate action in the event of problems, and a system of mandatory licensing, operator certification and training.

The Hillsburgh and Erin water systems have scored 100% for regulatory requirements in recent annual MOE inspections, and the Water Department has earned a provincial quality accreditation for its procedures and documentation. Various reports, and details about the Quality Management System, are available at www.erin.ca.

Town of Erin water rates have been going up by 20% per year since 2011 to pay for upgrades to the system, but the planned increase for 2015 is 5%. Users are now paying $4.08 per cubic metre of water, which is high compared to many other municipalities, partly due to the low number of customers – about 2,500 in Erin village (with 26 km of watermain), and 810 in Hillsburgh (with 7.1 km of water main).

Here is the provincial guide outlining the duties of municipal councillors for drinking water quality:

Taking Care of Your Drinking Water