Monday, February 17, 2003

Ontario water taking ruling flies in face of Walkerton report

TORONTO -- A decision by Ontario's environment minister to overrule a tribunal and allow a company to take millions of litres of river water a day casts doubt on the government's commitment to implement the Walkerton report, angry activists said Monday.

In a ruling released late Friday, Chris Stockwell threw out an unprecedented decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal, which had limited the amount of water that can be taken from the Tay River in eastern Ontario.

"There's been a lot of shock, anger and disappointment over the minister's decision,'' said Ramani Nadarajah, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

"This demonstrates the government is simply paying lip-service to its commitment to protecting the environment and to implementing some of the key recommendations from the Walkerton inquiry.''

In what was the first full hearing of an appeal under the province's Environmental Bill of Rights, the tribunal sided with worried local citizens.

Acting on expert evidence from Ministry of the Environment and other officials, the tribunal ruled that OMYA (Canada) Inc. hadn't provided enough data about the impact of its plans on the Tay and surrounding watershed.

OMYA uses the water to turn crushed limestone into a slurry that is then used in paper and other products. The Swiss-based mining company said it needs up to 4.5 million litres of fresh water a day. The tribunal limited that amount to 1.5 million litres but Stockwell has now set aside that ruling.

"That's extremely troubling,'' said Nadarajah.

"It fundamentally undermines the integrity of the process and the public faith in this process.''

The government has promised watershed-protection legislation within months, prompting critics to wonder why the decision would be made now.

Stockwell refused to discuss his decision on the basis it could end up before the courts.

"He's been advised by legal counsel not to make further comment and to let the decision stand on its own merits,'' said Heather Capannelli, an aide to the minister.

Mike Cassidy, who owns a cottage in the area and was one of the activists who fought OMYA's plans, decried Stockwell's involvement.

"It's a wrong decision, not just for the Tay and Lanark County, it's also a wrong decision in terms of environmental protections in Ontario,'' said Cassidy.

"It's a very serious weakening of the provisions of the Environmental Bill of Rights.''

In his inquiry into the E. coli tragedy that hit Walkerton in May 2000, Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor recommended the government implement legislation to protect water sources.

As part of that protection, O'Connor recommended ``water budgets'' be prepared before permits were issued so that the environmental impact could be assessed.

"Stockwell) has basically ignored that recommendation,'' said Nadarajah.

In his 30-page decision, Stockwell said he is satisfied that OMYA can take up to 4.5 million litres a day after Jan. 1, 2004 if it needs to and "not cause harm to the Tay River watershed.''

Critics argue the water would permanently leave the area _ a key part of the Rideau River watershed _ with unknown consequence.

"It's a consumptive use. The water doesn't go back into the Tay,'' said Cassidy.

"We don't know enough to know what the impacts will be.''