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'The system worked': Province to continue free well-water testing

Decision gives 'real clarity' to rural residents who worried about possible phase out, councillor says

Concerns over the potential cost of well-water testing are now just water under the bridge.

That’s thanks to comments from Ontario’s Minister of Health, Sylvia Jones, who has confirmed that the province intends to keep well-water tests free for private residents.

When asked last week if well-water tests will continue to be free of charge, Jones responded simply, saying: “Yes, yes, yes.”

That offers some relief for rural residents across the province, including about 3,200 residents who rely on private wells in Bradford West Gwillimbury.

On May 7, a day before Jones’ comments were made, council approved the committee’s recommendation to send a letter to Jones and others calling on the province to not phase out free testing.

“It’s gratifying that the minister provided some real clarity. That’s what I was hoping to receive,” Bradford Councillor Jonathan Scott said.

Scott noted that the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority had made a similar appeal to the province just one week prior, after which Scott said he received some feedback from the premier’s office.

“In this case, I think the government heard us and the system worked the way it’s supposed to, even if it took maybe a few more weeks than is ideal,” he said.

Scott explained he initially learned of the issue as part of his work with Conservation Ontario, and later discovered that a report from Ontario’s auditor general in December of last year made mention of a plan to gradually discontinue testing.

According to the report, that plan was first proposed by Public Health Ontario in 2017 and then again in January 2023.

In early April, opposition parties raised concerns at Queen’s Park about the issue, and on April 16, Jones said, “the ministry (had) not made any decisions about changes to the provincial well water testing program, including which laboratories conduct testing of water samples,” adding that “no one in the province of Ontario or in this legislature ... believes that putting well water testing at risk is on the table.”

That didn’t provide enough clarity or commitment for Scott.

“This is a basic public health and equity issue,” he said.

The councillor didn’t want to see wealthy residents as the only ones who could afford to have their water tested, while other rural residents were left to struggle.

“In this province it was 24 years ago when we saw the consequences of not testing your water adequately,” he said in reference to the Walkerton E. coli outbreak that caused illness in more than 2,000 people and resulted in seven deaths.

Scott considers free well-water testing a public service important across the province, but also felt the issue was of particular concern for Bradford council and residents.

“I know our rural residents want to ensure their well water is safe,” he said. “We’ve seen it when there’s been various development applications come forward. One of the first concerns is: What will this mean for the aquifer? What will this mean for my well water?”

Those questions were front of mind for many of the more than 50 residents who packed council chambers for the public meeting on Oct. 17 to express their concerns over a potential new cemetery on Line 13.

Gail Hazlett was one of the residents to raise the issue, which she called “very concerning.”

“My kids drink the water, my neighbours drink the water, everyone drinks the water,” she said.

— With files from Charlie Pinkerton and Sneh Duggal

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Michael Owen

About the Author: Michael Owen

Michael Owen has worked in news since 2009 and most recently joined Village Media in 2023 as a general assignment reporter for BradfordToday
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