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Six E. coli deaths in Walkerton, Ontario, in May could be the result of a "confused patchwork" of laws and policies on protecting groundwater, according to a report submitted to Ontario's Legislative Assembly.
Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, submitted a special report on intensive farming and the protection of groundwater to the assembly, highlighting Ontario's lax laws in monitoring manure management. Miller monitors provincial ministries' compliance with Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights.
E. coli bacteria was distributed by the Walkerton water supply utility in May. The outbreak killed six people and infected 2,000 others in Walkerton, a town of 5,000 people 90 miles west of Toronto.
Ontario Provincial Police and the Provincial Coroner's Office are investigating the Walkerton outbreak.
In his report, Miller cites the lack of legislative control over large, intensive farming operations, which produce vast quantities of liquid manure. The report criticizes Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAFRA) for advocating voluntary controls on the environmental impacts of farm manure instead of using regulations to ensure safe manure management.
Miller says that Ontario environmental legislation actually exempts some aspects of manure management from monitoring. In 1998 OMAFRA strengthened the legal protection for farmers against complaints from neighbors about their farming practices.
Although the reasons are not known on how the E-coli strain got into the Walkerton water supply, it is suspected a chlorinated water purification system failed after heavy rains washed contaminated manure into the farming community's wells.
The Walkerton Public Utilities Commission has said it would replace all the town's water pipes after repeated attempts failed to fully flush the system of bacteria.
(Source: Environment News Service)