September 27, 2013 - 10:49 AM
VERNON - A Vernon provincial court judge believes the Regional District of North Okanagan should have done more to keep drinking water safe for public consumption and found it guilty of four charges related to water quality.
The decision has been close to three years in the making, though trial Judge Mayland McKimm said the district’s negligence goes back over ten years.
Four drinking water charges were laid against the district after manure from a nearby farmer’s field seeped into the Antwerp Springs well, which provided drinking water to approximately 1,800 residents in Coldstream and Lavington. One resident described the water coming out their tap as brown coloured and thick with effluent. A 'do not drink' advisory was immediately put in effect, and the well was shut down.
McKimm said the district’s response after the “catastrophic” event was quick and commendable, but those actions weren’t in question.
McKimm detailed the history of Antwerp Springs, going back to 1999 when the district was first warned of a cross connection that could result in contaminants entering the well. Over the years, reports were brought forward recommending the cross connection be addressed, but the district continued to avoid the issue, McKimm said. The reliability of the chlorine analyzer—which is supposed to send an alert if the water isn’t sufficiently chlorinated—was also known to be faulty. On the day in question, it got clogged—a result of high magnesium levels known to the district—and failed to do its job.
McKimm said the district’s communication with Interior Health to address the concerns “did not absolve them of liability.”
“They continued to put the users at risk,” McKimm said.
Sentencing is set for Oct. 16, and is expected to be a fine, as was paid by the District of Coldstream and the farmer on whose land the effluent originated. Defence lawyer Rob Bruneau says he’ll ask McKimm to consider no greater penalty than was imposed on the District of Coldstream, which paid $18,400. Going to trial and fighting the charges has cost the district more than if they had simply pleaded guilty because of legal fees, but Bruneau says they had no other choice.
“Our difficulty was the regional district didn’t believe that they had acted without due diligence. If you don’t believe you’ve acted without due diligence, it would be improper to plead guilty,” Bruneau says.
Crown counsel Joel Gold says it’s rare for this sort of case to go to trial, and thinks the decision could have an impact on legislation.
“One of the things which occurs when a judge gives a decision is it provides assistance in terms of what is that standard of care? What is the reasonable standard of care to apply in the provision of water?” Gold says.
Regional district chair Patrick Nicol says he’s disappointed with the verdict, but glad they defended themselves.
“The dedication of our staff, (those) who knocked on every door that night is something to be proud of,” he says.
He says the district has been working on a Master Water Plan which would improve water service.
“We’re hopeful that we will be able to go to the province and say these are ways to enhance—not make fool proof, but enhance—safety. We’re hopeful to get the necessary dollars to do those improvements,” he says.
The regional district was convicted of operating a well in a manner to cause adverse impacts, introducing foreign matter into a well, allowing contamination of drinking water and failing to provide potable water.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013