Newfoundland water warnings hit new high : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

June 4, 2001

Newfoundland water warnings hit new high 200 towns affected: Boiling tap water a quick fix for $50M treatment problem

Michael MacDonald The Canadian Press ST. JOHN'S - The number of Newfoundland towns under boil water advisories has hit 200 -- one in every three communities with a public water supply.

Municipal leaders say the province is finally paying the price for its long-standing practice of ignoring pleas to install proper water-treatment equipment.

The province now accounts for about half of the boil water advisories in Canada, even though it has only 2% of the population.

"The bureaucrats responsible for water quality are covering their butts by telling everybody to boil," says Bob Fisher, Mayor of Bauline, a town of 380 people northwest of St. John's.

It is a huge embarrassment for a province that has resurrected a proposal to start exporting its fresh water in bulk.

The Newfoundland government, seeking a quick fix after last year's tainted water tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., started churning out boil advisories at a furious pace, says Mr. Fisher.

In the past 12 months, the number of towns where residents have been told to boil their tap water has doubled. In 87 of the more than 200 affected towns, there is no water disinfection system whatsoever.

Bauline's boil advisory was issued a year ago this month. Like many other towns in Newfoundland, its water treatment system is unreliable.

Every two or three days, a town worker walks to a nearby pumping station where he adds chlorine to water taken from a small pond. The system works, so long as consumption is steady.

"But if there's a sudden flush of toilets, there can be problems," the Mayor says.

Since 1992, Bauline has been asking the government to help pay for an automated system, which would cost about $150,000.

"It would seem to be [a strategy] of avoidance," Mr. Fisher says. "I hesitate to call it shirking of responsibility, but I haven't seen the provincial government out there leading the parade" to fix the problem.

Last week, Roger Grimes, the Premier, held a news conference to assure Newfoundlanders their public water supplies were clean and safe.

But he also released a study that raised some troubling questions.

The study, which had been kept secret for five years, says the incidence of water-borne diseases in Newfoundland was much higher than the national average, water-quality data was inadequate, and the province spent less on water treatment than any other jurisdiction.

While he insisted the report was filled with errors, the Premier then announced plans to spend $50-million on improving water monitoring and building treatment plants.

Gary Gosine, Mayor of Wabana, a town on Bell Island in Conception Bay, wants a share of that funding. He is looking for $100,000 to upgrade his town's water supply, which consists of 12 wells serving 3,000 people. But only two of the 12 pumping stations have disinfection equipment.

"I don't think they're doing a good job," Mr. Gosine says of the province. "The questions that we've got, we can't get answers from the government."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gosine says he has to wonder whether the government's boil orders are worth the paper they are written on.

"A lot of people on Bell Island don't even realize that a boil order is in effect," he says, noting he only filters his tap water.

Peter Kent, Wabana's town manager, says many residents are wilfully ignoring the advisory.

"There's a lot who don't boil it ... because they've been using the same supply for 40, 50 years," says Mr. Kent. "There's never been any [disease] attributed to the water supply."

Some towns have not been so lucky. The water supply in Black Tickle, a tiny community on Labrador's south coast, has long been linked to throat infections and other ailments.

Still, the boil advisory there has been ignored by some.

"It's a hassle boiling water," says Walter Roberts, who has worked at the local diesel generating plant for 30 years. "You've got to keep the stove on all the time ... A lot of people don't bother."

The story is much the same in Belleoram, a picturesque fishing village on Newfoundland's southern coast.

Steward May, the Mayor, does not boil his tap water, though he knows he should. "It scares me," he says. "I should think twice."

However, looking back on his 44 years in Belleoram, Mr. May says he cannot remember anyone getting sick from the water.

Indeed, provincial health officials stress that only 5% of the boil advisories in Newfoundland were issued because of contamination of the water source.

Tom Osborne, the Conservative environment critic, was not impressed with the Liberal government's decision to pump funding back into waterworks.

"The most inconsistent aspect of this whole issue has been the Premier and his Cabinet -- it's not the report," he says. "The government refused to release this information in 1996 because it didn't want to spend the money on the water supplies at the time."

-- Martin Thompson (, June 04, 2001

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