Ontario's Liberal government marked the fourth anniversary of the Walkerton tainted-water catastrophe by unveiling stringent new training rules for water quality analysts and system managers that Environment Ministry sources are billing as the toughest in North America.
Both new and current operators as well as analysts will be required to take ministry-approved courses each year, including those who already hold a license but never passed a certification exam, The Canadian Press reported.
"What is accepted as training is now more clearly defined than in the past," said a ministry source familiar with the changes.
"The new regulation will result in a more rigorous training program, which ensures relevant subject matter and more structured learning."
The standards are contained in a new regulation under the province's Safe Drinking Water Act and give so-called "grandparented" operators who are considered the "overall responsible" operator one year to pass a certification exam.
Other grandparented operators will have two years to pass the test.
"Clean water is essential to the health of our communities," Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky said in a statement. "Those who oversee Ontario's drinking water supplies must know about emerging risks and how to protect the public against them."
Ontario currently has 7,600 water system operators across the province, 1,600 of whom are grandparented, meaning they have licenses but have never passed a certification test.
Starting in August, drinking water and wastewater operators and analysts alike will also face a new array of higher certification fees to cover part of the cost of delivering the program, the source said.
"Like other professionals, one pays to maintain professional status; these increased fees are in line with what other professionals pay."
Details of the higher fees, which haven't been adjusted for inflation since they were established in 1997, are expected in the provincial budget.
The new regulation is designed to satisfy eight recommendations made by Justice Dennis O'Connor in his judicial inquiry into the tragedy in Walkerton, where seven people died and 2,500 more fell ill in May 2000 after deadly E. coli was washed into the town's water supply.
Stan Koebel, former manager of the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, and his brother Frank, the utility's former foreman, admitted to falsifying system records and failing to maintain proper chlorination levels in the system.
Together, they face a total of 12 charges including endangering the public, forgery and breach of trust. Both have pleaded not guilty and waived their right to a preliminary hearing; their lawyers have argued that the pair were minor players in the disaster.
If convicted, they each face penalties of two to 10 years in jail.