Boil water advisory lifted for Picton and Bloomfield
The pumps began to turn again last week at Picton’s water plant. Earlier in the week, the barge that had partially sunk—spilling fuel into Picton Bay—had been refloated and towed away. Water testing by the municipality and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change indicated the threat to the town’s water supply had dissipated.
Further testing inside the plant gave operators confidence on Wednesday evening to begin feeding the Picton and Bloomfield water system and refilling the system’s reservoirs.
With that, a weeklong boil water advisory came to an end. Questions remain, however, about whether industrial activity so near this municipal source is compatible with a drinking water supply, and ultimately who will pay the bill for the measures taken to protect the water supply and ensure residents continued to receive safe, clean water.
On Tuesday, Mayor Robert Quaiff lifted a municipal state of water emergency. This followed a positive result from a water column monitoring program conducted by Pinchin Limited—an environmental engineering consultancy.
Mayor Quaiff praised the response and diligence of County waterworks staff along with the fire service and senior staff in their handling of the emergency.
“I cannot express how proud I am of our staff,” said Quaiff.
He expressed gratitude to the independent water haulers and neighbouring municipalities that kept Picton’s reservoirs filled while the water plant was shut down. And he gave thanks to residents and businesses who endured a week of boiling water.
“Thank you to everyone involved in responding to this emergency and those impacted by it,” said Quaiff. “Thank you to the public for their patience and understanding.”
Though clearly relieved the immediate threat to the water supply had passed, neither Mayor Quaiff or the County’s manager were prepared to be explicit about who will pay the bill, nor would they offer any guidance as to how businesses impacted by the water emergency might seek recourse against those who contaminated Picton Bay.
Mayor Quaiff said his concern was ensuring a safe supply of clean drinking water—that it was up to other ministries and federal departments to regulate other activities in Picton Bay.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW
The County’s manager, James Hepburn, said the municipality had begun discussions with its lawyers and had begun outlining a strategy to recover its costs related to this crisis.
“We are looking at all our options,” said Hepburn. “It’s too early for me to comment further.”
It is not known yet the full cost of the spill, the clean up cost or the cost to the water system. Harder to measure is the impact this crisis has had on consumer confidence in the water supply in Picton and Bloomfield. Or what the longer term impact might be on the local economy—dependent as it is to a large extent on attracting people by the County’s natural beauty.
Both Quaiff and McAuley say users should take comfort in knowing the source water protection measures and the municipality’s operational safeguards did what they were supposed to do.
Our system worked,” said Quaiff. “The source water protection system worked. I have a high level of confidence in our staff.”
Aside from the immediate costs, there are long term implications that will drive the cost of the waterworks system for a generation or more.
The prospect of extending Picton’s water intake pipe further out into Picton Bay now seems no longer a reasonable consideration according to Shire Hall officials. Supplying Picton and Bloomfield with water from Wellington, however, is estimated to cost about $25 million—$15 million more than extending the existing pipe.
In the short term, McAuley will be looking to install a hydrocarbon (petroleum) filtration system into the Picton water treatment facility to avoid a reoccurrence of this type of threat.
Who will pay?
McAuley says the municipality will ask the province to shoulder a share of the cost of sourcing Picton and Bloomfield’s water from Wellington.
“There is a heightened awareness,” said McAuley of provincial ministries and their officials. “I believe we will be asking the province for assistance in changing the source to Wellington. It is right and fair that we ask for their help. The problem and solution is beyond the municipality itself.”
But he stressed that revisiting the source water protection system, in light of this spill and threat, will provide the policy and implementation tools to further enhance the safety of the water supply.
“The source water protection is a key instrument. The modelling was useful—perhaps we need to do some more work there to enhance it further. That is something very definitely we can do. We have to look at the health of the bay as a totality.”
But many folks living around Picton Bay are looking for a more muscular response by the municipality to proactively eliminate and mitigate the threat posed by industrial and commercial activity in the bay.
So far, Shire Hall has focused on making sure the drinking water is safe.
“We did what was necessary,” said Hepburn. “We reacted in best interests of the community. Public safety is our first concern and we did what we felt was necessary to do that.”
It will likely be weeks or months before County taxpayers and water user learn the full cost of this spill.
Jeff Leal, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, stopped by Shire Hall on Monday morning with a cheque in the amount of $737,948 for upgrades to the Picton water plant. This is money from the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund, that the County applied for last fall—unrelated to the barge incident.
That said it is a timely bit of money. At Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting Works chief Robert McAuley will be seeking council approval to use these funds to convert filters in the water plant to granulated activated carbon filters, which help to remove hydrocarbons (petroleum products) from the system, and provide better protection overall.