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B.C. government not sufficiently protecting province’s drinking water, auditor general says

Click to play video: 'B.C. report says drinking water at risk' B.C. report says drinking water at risk
B.C.'s auditor general says the provincial government isn't doing enough to ensure the safety of the province's drinking water. Richard Zussman reports – Jul 30, 2019

British Columbians are not adequately being informed of the ongoing risks associated with the province’s drinking water, according to B.C.’s auditor general.

Carol Bellringer released a report entitled The Protection of Drinking Water: An Independent Audit on Tuesday. It found along with not notifying the public of potential risks, the Ministry of Health and the provincial health officer (PHO) are not sufficiently protecting drinking water for all British Columbians.

“We undertook this audit because of the considerable importance of safe drinking water and because the risks to drinking water are increasing,” Bellringer said.

“Thankfully, B.C. has not had a known outbreak of water-borne illness since 2004, but just a single event that contaminates a drinking water system can cause serious health impacts for numerous people.”

READ MORE: Hedley residents told not to drink local tap water

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According to the auditor general’s findings, the health ministry does not know which water systems are at risk and has not developed a strategy to address them. Risks of water contamination are higher in small water systems where some communities may struggle to afford sufficient water protection systems and find qualified staff to treat water.

The auditor general also acknowledged that climate change, industrial activity and a growing population all have an impact on B.C.’s drinking water. Eight recommendations have been put forward in the report, including undertaking a legislative review, identifying risks and developing a strategic plan, and reporting out to the public.

“We found that overall, the Ministry of Health and the PHO’s accountability to ensure drinking water was protected is concerning,” Bellringer said.

B.C. Chief Medical Health Officer Bonnie Henry says the fact there has not been any major waterborne outbreak in B.C. since 2004 is a tribute to the vigilance of the health authority drinking water officers and the drinking water suppliers.

“We are always working to make sure B.C.’s drinking water is safe and looking for ways to improve our processes,” Henry said.

“We will seek further direction from Government and consult with other ministries, regional health authorities, industry and health stakeholders as we work together to protect B.C.’s drinking water.”

The Ministry of Health says in response to Bellringer’s audit that it accepts that a government-wide commitment to a drinking water strategy will increase protection.

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The B.C. Green Party says the findings of the report reiterate that not enough is being done to safeguard drinking water in B.C. MLA Sonia Furstenau says last month the Ministry of Environment approved a closure plan for the contaminated soil landfill above Shawnigan Lake, allowing a significant and avoidable risk to remain for the 12,000 people who rely on drinking water from this watershed.

“When it comes to watersheds, the province and governmental agencies are failing to fulfill their responsibilities,” Furstenau said.

“In an era of climate change, protecting water becomes even more important. A separate risk assessment report published last week found that B.C. is at high risk of both seasonal and long-term water shortages, with potentially catastrophic impacts.

“At the bare minimum the government must make source protection of drinking watersheds an urgent priority.”

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