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Public water testing is falling into private hands

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury, April 10, 2006.

Last June, the Ontario government passed a law that anyone who “serves the public” and draws their drinking water from a non-municipal well must submit a monthly sample for testing to a Private lab. It’s called Ontario Regulation 252, and it affects every type of public access facility in rural Ontario.

There are tens of thousands of them. They include churches, recreation centres, restaurants, gas stations, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, trailer parks, fishing lodges—in short, anyone who has a washroom or a public tap and is not connected to an urban pipe and sewer system.

Let’s call these people “customers.” Serving these customers is a grand total of 30 accredited private labs, representing just 22 communities across Ontario.

It is a recipe for disaster.

Until last June, the practice of testing rural drinking water fell primarily to Public Health units. These are the same people who, among other things, issue boil water orders and send Public Health Inspectors into restaurants. While there, they almost always took a water sample. The tourism industry generally views Public Health Inspectors as partners.

All that has changed now. The government Ministry responsible for Public Health is out of the testing business in rural Ontario. Today, private labs can charge whatever they please for water testing. And they’re doing it.

Economically, government has handed an immense volume of new business to a small number of private labs, at significant expense to small rural tourism operators. In an example of the downloading begun by “the common sense revolution”, the McGuinty government is reducing the role of its own Public Health Labs in favour of turning responsibility over to a single-source, for-profit system that provides no alternative for tourism operators.

I'm the first person to stand up in favour of free enterprise, but I believe this is what was once called a monopoly.

Monopoly may not be too strong a word when you consider that most operators only have one lab to choose from in their geographic area. And that area can be vast: while the local health unit is often a relatively short distance away, the nearest private lab may be anything but. With only 30 labs—four of them concentrated in London, Ontario—you don’t need to be a geography major to understand the impact.

What’s more, there is no regulatory mechanism in place to standardize pricing for what is, after all, a common, standardized testing procedure. If an operator wants to achieve a profit of, say, 50% versus only 25%, there is nothing preventing them from adjusting their fees accordingly. Market competition won’t stop them, because there is no one else upon whom we can call.

A position being advocated by a number of public health professionals involved in these discussions is that Public Health Labs should be taking samples from all “public access facilities” instead of private wells. Turn the language around and it becomes truly ironic: as private citizens, we can get our rural water tested at a Public Health lab, but as a public access facility, we are forced into private testing.

If we accept that government is the custodian of public health, there’s a good argument that all public access facilities be included within the mandate of the Public Health system. Government should not be permitted to abdicate operational responsibility for public health to an economically unregulated private system where small water system owners have no choice and no ability to control their costs.

A complete review of Public Health labs is taking place right now, and may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of public testing.

At a time when we have the opportunity to build out the infrastructure that would enable public laboratory testing on a large scale, government instead seems intent on reducing capacity. This is the point of no return. The argument has been made by the Ministry’s own front line staff that the public testing alternative should be built into the review process. No one seems to be listening.

There would, of course, be costs. But instead of attempting to build an economic model that raises the capacity of public health, liability is being passed to the private sector. Government says that charging for testing services would put them in competition with private enterprise. My point is, that’s exactly what’s needed. Competition is precisely what is missing in this regulatory environment.

When it comes to safe drinking water, testing is, of course, a good idea. But it is a monitoring activity only, and should not be mistaken as prevention. New legislation formalizing these practices will soon reach the legislature at Queen’s Park. Unless the tourism industry speaks up, it may already be too late.


©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.


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