Who will pay?
The immediate threat has passed. Yet there is lingering unease over the spill of fuel into Picton Bay and an unsettling sense of vulnerability in Picton and Bloomfield’s water system that didn’t exist a month ago. But unlike the toxic material that threatened this water supply, this unease is likely to grow and fester, rather than disperse.
Serious questions had dogged renewed commercial and industrial activity in this shallow bay long before a submerged barge—serving an industrial wind development project on Amherst Island—led to the shutdown of the town’s water plant.
These, now more urgent, questions and the emergency response caused by the spill, demand a clear and sharp response from Shire Hall. There are two obvious reasons for this. First, the County must recover the money it has spent protecting the water supply, and will spend to restore confidence in this system. Second, it must assert its authority in Picton Bay to ensure the safety and health of this vulnerable waterway for the folks who use it to live, work and play.
It was disappointing, therefore, to see council— a majority of whom are not consumers of the municipal water system—lend continued support for the expansion of Picton Terminals last week. Many of our council leaders appear far too eager to dismiss the significance—and inevitable cost—of this spill in favour of more intense industrial activity in this shallow bay and the promise of a handful of jobs.
As noted in this column last week, County residents, particularly those in Picton and Bloomfield were well served by Shire Hall and its officials during those uncertain days immediately after the spill.
What is needed now, however, is an equally robust and muscular response in the aftermath of this emergency. The County needs to serve notice in a loud and clear way that it intends to ensure those who inflicted this damage pay the full cost— that it won’t be ratepayers and water users who are stuck with the bill. Just as importantly, it must send the message that this community will proactively protect Picton Bay—not simply respond to disasters. To do this, it must send a vivid signal: that those who put the health of this community at risk will be held to account.
Picton and Bloomfield water users are victims. They, and by extension all waterworks customers, have been injured by this incident. They are on hook, not just for out-of-pocket costs for shuttling water and the costs of this emergency, but for the eventual extension of the Wellington water system to Bloomfield and Picton. Many millions of dollars of costs that will have to be paid.
It is not a time for mush-mouthed answers or mixed messages.
We can do one of two things: either timidly extend an open palm and hope insurance companies and senior levels of government treat us fairly, or we can loudly demand that ratepayers and waterworks be spared the expense of this spill.
Which is it going to be? Your ratepayers are waiting anxiously for your answer.
After all, what are regulatory agencies for if not to clean up the messes they permit? If it is the province’s job to regulate the environment then it must take responsibility when things go badly. Similarly, with the federal government assuming authority over how commerce is conducted in this shallow bay, it must take responsibility for the consequences of its choices.
But don’t expect these agencies to act reasonably or fairly. Expect a fight.
Yet it hardly stirs confidence—or instills fear among those who seek to profit on this bay— when scarcely a week after emergency measures ended that some on council have already begun downplaying the threat. It is uncertain who they represent when they seek to balance the dangling of a few jobs with the health and safety of the water supply of thousands. It seems ludicrous outside the echo chamber of Shire Hall—certainly so for those who turn on a tap.
Picton Bay was always a risky bet for the town’s water supply. It is a busy and shallow water source. As long as the water was safe, however, residents didn’t worry about its fragility. That thin protective illusion has been ripped apart. It won’t be put back together.
Council’s decision last week illustrates either a profound insensitivity or a fundamental misreading of events. Some have clearly failed to notice that circumstances in Picton Bay changed permanently when the barge failed within a few hundred metres of the water intake serving Picton and Bloomfield.
No amount of minimization, relativization or denial will remove the question marks that linger over this water supply.
Shire Hall has a claim to make. It must make it forcefully and with conviction. Otherwise, ratepayers and waterworks consumers will be stuck with a staggering bill. And many lasting questions. Councillors must decide who they represent.