London News, Canada
Friday, February 21, 2003

Stockwell defends water diversion

The minister says he was only following ministry advice in making the decision last week.


TORONTO -- Ontario's environment minister said yesterday he was following advice from his ministry when he decided to allow a company to take millions of litres of water a day from a river in eastern Ontario.
Chris Stockwell also defended his parliamentary assistant, Bill Murdoch, who says the government bears no responsibility for the tainted water tragedy in Walkerton despite a judicial inquiry report that found it did.
Last week, Stockwell overturned a decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal that limited the amount of water Swiss-based mining multinational OMYA could take from the Tay River, which temporarily ran dry two years ago.
Stockwell said allowing OMYA to take 4.5 million litres of water a day from the Tay near Perth wouldn't have a negative impact on the river's water levels or disturb the watershed.
"I chose basically the decision put forward by the Ministry of the Environment," said Stockwell, speaking for the first time about the issue.
The tribunal's ruling, based on a lack of data about the potential impact of OMYA's plans, came after the first full hearing held under the province's Environmental Bill of Rights.
"It was a no-win for me," said Stockwell, adding he was caught between the tribunal and the ministry. "I took the advice of my outside counsel."
Environmentalists and the opposition were outraged Stockwell had interfered, saying he had no new scientific evidence on which to base his decision.
They said he was essentially ignoring recommendations of the inquiry into the E. coli tragedy that struck Walkerton in May 2000, killing seven persons and leaving 2,500 others ill.
Among his recommendations, Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor called for comprehensive watershed protection and management.
That would include doing a "budget" to assess whether a system can sustain intensive water-extraction.
New Democrat Marilyn Churley said Stockwell had "clearly caved in to pressure" from OMYA.
"This was the government's first really serious test since the Walkerton report," Churley said.
While saying he accepted O'Connor's recommendations, Stockwell didn't criticize Murdoch's comments about the inquiry.
Murdoch, the Conservative member for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, which includes Walkerton, has been under fire for saying the two brothers who ran the town's water system were solely responsible for the tragedy.
O'Connor, however, concluded government cost-cutting and poor Environment Ministry practices also played a substantial role.
Saying "there's some debate" about who was to blame, Stockwell said he had "nothing but faith" in Murdoch."Mr. Murdoch has his opinions about what he thinks about Walkerton. It's his riding."