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In fact, the boil water advisory has been in place since Wednesday, February 14th but many residents only learned about it five days later by over-hearing others bringing it up in conversation! With a well documented array of serious health issues that relate to drinking contaminated water it seems to some residents that the Town of Brome Lake took an overly-casual attitude towards announcing the precautionary measures. Some are visibly angered at the fact that they learned of the potential problems with the municipal water supply by chance.
One resident of Knowlton who only learned of the water boil advisory through the grapevine was critical of the Town: "I can't believe there was even the remotest danger to health and no-one knew about the problem!" they said, visibly angered with the officials and their handling of the situation, "There's no excuse! It's irresponsible!".
The Town took out an advertisement to announce the boil water advisory in the February 16th edition of the Journal Le Guide newspaper but the small announcement appeared at the bottom of page 28 in the form of a 2 inch by 3 inch notice at the bottom of the page with the headline: "Public notice on the water network". There was no sense of urgency in the notice and the small print mentioned it was a precautionary measure due to the fact that the water was being drawn from the Bailey Well. There was no clarification as to why or what was involved or the reasons for the precautionary measures. The official website of the Town of Brome Lake had a small notice to the hazard that is dated February 14th. The February 14th edition of the Brome County News, a popular local newspaper, had no notice of the potential risk to drinking the water supply. To some, this represents an inadequate attempt at informing a population of over 6000 residents of a potential health danger.
The announcement in the Journal La Guide, signed by Town General Manager Jean Bouret, was somewhat vague as to cause or effect and mentioned only that the municipality would be taking daily water samples for further testing. There was no further information given beyond mentioning that "the town is issuing a notice to boil drinking water since it is drawn from the Bailey Well". The Towns' website offers no further information.
The Journal La Guide newspaper is mainly distributed in the Publi-Sac along with flyers and coupons from businesses in the area and to some residents, placing a small announcement on page 26 can hardly be considered a serious attempt at notifying the public of a health concern, considering that many residents do not accept the Publi-Sac. The Town could have distributed a simple flyer to every mailbox with a notice that their may be a potential danger in the drinking water instead of simply buying a small 2 inch space in a free newspaper read by a small percentage of the population. As one resident put it: "You would think that whoever is in charge of public safety would have insisted on doing something about letting people know (about the water)! Making phone calls, placing signs at the IGA, posting notices at mail pick-up points would have been a start. Even someone who is trying to give away free kittens has more initiative and can find the time to put up a handwritten notice up on every bulletin board!"
Some restaurants in Knowlton and Lac Brome were actually telephoned by Quebec health officials who wanted to ensure that they were not serving the water for public consumption or even washing dishes with the water! The local daycare was phoned and told not to drink or even use tap-water to wash surfaces due to the potential risk! If even washing with tap water posed a health risk the town should have been notified! It is comforting to know that restaurants and daycares may have been alerted to contamination risks but for other residents who have been drinking, bathing and washing with the potentially dangerous water for the last few days with no idea they could be at risk are not so lucky.
When high ranking Provincial health officials issue such direct notifications which carry notes of gravity and imply an urgent need to reduce potential threats to public safety it seems incredulous that many residents remained in the dark for so long, as long as five days for some. We have all seen the results of mismanaged towns where elected officials were slow to act when water quality issues were involved and it has many residents wondering if Lac Brome is another example of such inept management. Getting a warning message regarding the safety of the water 6000 people in the year 2007 cannot be considered an arduous task when most of us have emails. Perhaps the Town should collect email addresses with their tax payments and create a mailing list to ensure that all residents can be informed of any such issues at a moments notice.
There have been many highly publicized tragedies involving contaminated water supplies and one name that echoes in the Canadian small town psyche is Walkerton, the small town which saw deaths due to the consumption of contaminated water. The small town in Ontario saw Scandal surrounded the elected officials of the town when their mismanagement of the situation was uncovered. Out of the extensive Walkerton Inquiry by the Attorney General there came a multitude of recommendations for dealing with municipal water issues in the future which included keeping an up-to-date emergency response plan in the event of contaminations and stressed the importance of maintaining a communication system to relay information to the public as well as a telephone directory of vital services in the event of any such emergencies.
Of course, the case of Walkerton is extreme and involved criminal charges due to the forging of documents and safety-records relating to water quality control and does not have any relation or similarity to the possible water problems of this week in Lac Brome, indeed the water advisory seems to be only a precautionary measure but still, the importance of being able to quickly notify a population of imminent risk is a key factor in municipal responsibility and it seems that in this case the Town of Lac Brome failed at following this and many guidelines that were recommended in the Walkerton Report.
This picture shows the signage used by the Town to post public notices yet there is no warning posted as to the boil water advisory. It is hard to understand why a prominent notice board is not being used. The Town has sent registered letters to bussinesses warning of legal action if certain signage rules wern't adhered to but the fact they can find fault with the sign of the renovated Rona store because it has lights on it while letting their own sign crumble to pieces when it should be used to alert the population is utterly incredulous!
The most basic issue revolves around informing the public of an imminent threat, no matter how small. Most of us would prefer to have officials being extra cautious regarding our family health and safety. Most of us would prefer that if we were dining at a restaurant our waiter would inform us if a neon light bulb had just exploded in the kitchen showering powdered granules throughout the kitchen which may have landed in the soup we are about to eat instead of having a friend tell us two days later after we had already eaten it. Most of us would prefer that the people we entrust with directing our taxes show a real concern with the key values of our health and safety.
The snowstorm of February was a record accumulation that will not likely be beat for another two decades but the paralyzing storm we experienced that basically closed the town cannot be used an excuse by officials to explain why more of the population were not informed of the potential danger. The elected officials who are the first to learn of hazards to our health have a responsibility to ensure that everyone is rapidly informed regardless of extenuating circumstances. In this case, the town’s failure to warn us in a timely matter is an extreme dereliction that has many people asking questions.