It would be simplistic to say that the privatization of Ontario’s labs that tested Walkerton’s water caused the tragic deaths in that town. But the politics of privatization were a factor.
Garry Palmateer worked for the public lab that tested Walkerton’s water. He was a microbiologist for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. Palmateer found himself unemployed when the “common sense” politics of Mike Harris swept through Ontario. Premier Harris decided to reduce the size of government by shutting down the public lab. After all, small government is good government, right?
Palmateer wasn’t out of a job for long. He formed a private water testing company named GAP Environmental Services, and was joined by a core of microbiologists who used to work for the Ministry of the Environment. They found warning signals in Walkerton’s water and passed on the information to Environment Minister and the Public Utilities Commission of Walkerton.
GAP tested Walkerton’s water up to April 24th. Palmateer’s company stopped testing their water because there was no money in it. They moved on to more profitable consulting ventures. Walkerton’s water commission, desperate for a lab to test water, sent samples to a Canadian branch of an American lab: A&L Canada Laboratories East. A&L agreed to test the water as a temporary measure only.
The new lab found the same warnings as Palmateer’s lab but didn’t tell the Medical Officer of Walkerton. The Officer would have issued a warning to boil water, which would have saved lives. As a private lab, A&L saw the Walkerton water utility as the client, not the citizens of Walkerton. In the absence of clear direction, the allegiance of private business is to those paying the bills, not to the public.
A&L did disclose the results to Ontario’s Environment Minister, but the Ministry did nothing to investigate Walkerton’s water. No alarm bells went off. The Medical Officer wasn’t warned. To understand why the Environment Minister wouldn’t be shouting warnings from the rooftops, you need to understand the right-wing politics of the environment.
In the neo-conservative lexicon, “environment” is a code word for an impediment to business and profit-making. Environmental concerns of dumping animal excrement on the ground and in waterways amounts to an obstacle to the profits of agri-business. The Industrial production of animals is most efficient when thousands of livestock are concentrated on a small areas of land, and the government of Ontario had promoted that industry.
Industrial animal sewage is not treated, despite volumes as great as a small city. Although the government of Ontario relaxed laws to enable huge cow and pig growing factories, they made no provision to deal with the pollution that they produce.
No regard was given to those people living on small farms and towns in the midst of the stink and disease generated by the crap. Rural Canadians, after all, serve one purpose — as subjects for quaint advertisements for the products of agri-business.
It’s the same callous disregard that the government of Canada displayed to small-time farmers. When prairie farmers faced financial collapse due to weather and low grain prices, they looked for the kind of help that farmers in other countries had received. The federal Liberals think that Canadians who choose a rural lifestyle are expendable, and the government of Ontario agrees.
In the minds of neo-conservatives, environmentalists are best thought of as crackpots. Why have a Ministry of the Environment populated by fruitcakes who tangle business in red tape?
It’s not that private labs lack qualified staff or quality of the health services they provide. The problem is that they are driven by profits, not public service. If testing water for a small community doesn’t make much money, they move on to something else.
Now Gary Palmateer is back on the job, not as a biologist working for the public labs of the Ministry, but as a detective hired to hunt down the exact source of the deadly strain of E. coli. I’m sure that he will do as a good job.
But after the furor of Walkerton has died down, Palmateer’s company will be seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Little towns like Walkerton will be left scrambling to find a lab to test their water at a price they can afford, and wondering why the Ministry of the Environment didn’t protect their environment.