Government cuts and water safety

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint questioned the accuracy of comments on the CBC News Network program, Power & Politics, about the impact of government cuts on water safety. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On April 30, 2012, the CBC News Network program Power & Politics discussed the impact of public service job cuts.

A guest of the program, former Liberal MP Mark Holland, noted: “We've got to take a look at what happened in places like Walkerton where we had a huge problem with water that really emanated from poorly thought out cuts that had no planning around them.”

Holland was referring to a water safety problem in May 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario. In mid-May, many residents in the town of 5,000 began to fall ill. Initially the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission indicated the water supply was safe. But within a week the regional health officer had issued an advisory to avoid drinking local water or to boil it if it had to be consumed.

At least seven died and more than 2,300 were made ill by the E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni bacterial contamination. The source of the bacteria was cattle manure that overwhelmed chlorine in a water well and entered the distribution system.

A public inquiry was called into the tragedy. Two managers at the Commission were convicted of wrongdoing.

On May 1, the complainant, Frank Gue, wrote CBC News to say that the program had inaccurately drawn the connection between government cuts and water safety. He asserted that the inquiry did not find any such connection. Rather, he said, it placed the blame on the managers.

Gue also noted that the blame was often focused on the Conservative government under Premier Mike Harris, when program cuts had been initiated under then-NDP Premier Bob Rae.

On June 13, the executive editor of CBC News, Esther Enkin, wrote back to say that Holland's view was backed by the inquiry report that criticized the provincial government for cutting environment ministry jobs and resources without understanding the impact on its ability to fulfill regulatory obligations.

Gue wrote back June 15 and said the “Walkerton-Harris cuts” argument was never proven and had become a “durable urban myth.” He said it deserved to be challenged as much as Holocaust denial. He asked for a review of the complaint.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accuracy and truth-seeking in its content. The policy requires an even-handed and respectful treatment of varying points of view and clear, concise presentation of information. When mistakes are made they are corrected as necessary.

Conclusion

The report of the inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy was wide-ranging in nature, but two themes were clear in assigning blame: the managers were not fulfilling duties and the provincial government had cut crucial resources without understanding what might happen.

The report noted that budget reductions that led to the privatization of government laboratory services for municipalities were imposed without a regulation compelling services to immediately notify the ministry and medical officer of health when there were adverse test results.

It added: “The provincial government's budget reductions made it less likely that the (ministry) would have identified both the need for continuous monitors at (the contaminated well) and the improper operating practices of the Walkerton (utilities commission).”

There were “shortcomings in the approvals and inspection programs” of the environment ministry that did not detect improper practices, the report said.

I should note that the complainant expressed concern about linking cuts in service to the Conservative government. But in reviewing the program, I found the guest made no such link — he talked in general terms about government program cuts, but did not specify which government and under which leader.

The guest — and by extension, the program — was not inaccurate and did not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman