Ground Water In Ontario Essay, Research Paper
As nations around the globe enter the 21st century, one of the most pressing concerns facing each is the notion of sustainable development. Sustainable development, simply put, refers to maintaining a rate of industrialization which minimizes the destruction of the environment. And while issues such as the price and accessibility of crude oil dominate trade talks and newspaper headlines, there is an ever-more important concern emerging: access to water.
Despite its relatively small population size (approximately 30 million), Canada is one of the largest consumers of water on a per capita basis. Only the United States exceeds Canada’s rate of consumption. In his article, Water from the Ground, Peter Gorrie writes that Canada uses “an estimated 1.5 billion cubic meters of [water] each year”, (Gorrie 71). And while Canadians are for the most part are unaware of how much water they consume, they are even less aware of its presence around them. For water is an immense natural resource that rests not only around Canadians, but beneath their feet as well.
In no region is this more pervasive than in the province of Ontario. Ontarians walk above groundwater supplies everyday, without the slightest notion of the extent to which they rely on this over-used and exploited natural resource. Canada as a whole “has far more water underground than on the surface – perhaps 65 times more than in surface lakes and streams”,(Gorrie 70-71), and the same holds true for Ontario. Outside of the major urban centres which rely predominantly on surface sources for their water, most of Ontario relies on groundwater supplies. Although these groundwater supplies are abundant, not all are usable. In some cases the water has been polluted – as is the case in Elmira – and in others it is simply unpalatable because of high sulfur and other mineral contents. But because of the amount of groundwater which is actually used throughout Ontario, it is quite shocking that a majority of people are unaware of the inherent danger to Ontario’s groundwater supply.
“Out of sight and mind”(Gorrie 69) is an all too common phrase used by geographers to describe the lack of concern over groundwater. Ontario is slowly polluting its groundwater, and making it the resting place for many toxic chemicals. Groundwater moves the fastest through coarse sands or gravels, but it moves at a snail’s pace through clays that are found in most of Southern Ontario. Some of these pollutants take hundreds of years to work there way out of the water table, and there are no clean-up solutions worth using.
Pollution to groundwater comes in many different forms. Large companies are accused of being the primary polluters, but others who are also responsible include dry cleaners, farmers, residential septic tanks, mine tailing run-off, garbage dumps, and leaky fuel storage facilities. Gorrie points out one of the central problems in reducing groundwater pollution: “Canada has some of the world’s leading experts on groundwater, but we have some of the weakest, laziest legislation covering it”(Gorrie 73). In order to gain a greater understanding of the threats to groundwater supplies, it is imperative to look at the causes of pollution and their consequences to the general public.
In 1989 the effects of groundwater pollution were felt in the small southwestern Ontario town of Elmira. Elmira fell victim to tainted groundwater at the hands of Uniroyal Chemical Ltd. The chemical N-nitroso dimethylamine had leaked from the plant into the water supply, requiring the town to drink bottled water for months. Eventually a pipeline was laid from nearby Waterloo to provide fresh clean water to the town. As well as the effects on the town’s people, a local firm had to recall 100, 000 cans of apple juice which had been made with the tainted water. This is just one of a number of companies which have been responsible for contaminating drinking water.
The problem of contaminating groundwater supplies is not just localized to Ontario. Ontario may have higher instances of contamination than other parts of Canada, but that can be directly contributed to the population density. “Canada’s record for groundwater protection is one of the worst in the industrialized world west”(Gorrie 72). This is a fact that should be disturbing to most in the country and inside the province of Ontario. Canadians as a general rule pride themselves on environmental concern, yet fall short of other heavier populated countries with episodes such as Uniroyal. Perhaps it is because Ontario has such a large supply of fresh water that it has become acceptable in the public, and politicians eye to let companies destroy it.
Another of the large offenders is the mining industry. During the process of mining, large piles of crushed rock (mine tailings) are left behind after the valuable minerals have been removed. These mine tailings pose a major threat to groundwater supplies, because of the iron sulphide they contain. This iron sulphide, when mixed with “water and bacteria converts to sulphuric acid. The acid then dissolves lead, mercury and other toxic or radioactive metals out of the tailings and these can seep down to groundwater”, (Gorrie 76). These tailings are not a concern when mines are in operation, because the water must be collected and contaminates separated. When mines are closed however, there is no legislation covering who is responsible for these tailings. This example illustrates yet another way by which big companies have polluted groundwater, and poor government control has allowed them to get away virtually unpunished.
As was mentioned previously, large companies are not the sole contributors to groundwater pollution. Small companies and individuals are equally to blame. For instance, the chemical “perchloroethylene is among the most common ground water contaminants in the world”, (Gorrie 74). Perchloroethylene is the main chemical used in the dry-cleaning process, and has effectively altered the way of life for people in Manotick, Ontario for years. In December of 1991 a new resident moved to the town. After he conducted extensive test of his own well, he found the water to be tainted with the dry-cleaning fluid. More than 40 homes in the town had polluted wells, and the government responded by giving the town bottled water and filters for bath water. It is believed the contamination came from a dry-cleaning business that closed in 1986 after the death of the owner. He had been dumping the left-over waste chemical into leaky concrete holding tanks. This finding was particularly shocking because the town had been drinking the contaminated water for at least five years prior without even knowing. It is not so surprising to groundwater experts, who claim that “tainted drinking water can go unnoticed for years because many of contaminants cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and do not cause immediate sickness”, (Gorrie 74).
Those in Ontario who live on the outskirts of towns, and are too far away from sewer lines can play a large role in tainting groundwater. Most of these homes use septic systems with weeping beds. These weeping beds allow the lighter fluids to run of into a tile, that eventually seeps into the ground. The problem is that while the heavy waste sinks to the bottom and is eventually disposed of in a proper fashion, lighter waste is able to seep into the groundwater. This lighter waste can be just as harmful as a chemical plant’s waste, because the “homeowners’ tendency to put cleaners, solvents and other chemicals down their drains”, (Gorrie 76) ends up in the water.
Most people’s attentions to groundwater is directed to villages and small towns. Yet quiet possibly the largest contributors are in rural Ontario. Farmers have been contributing to groundwater pollution for years without even knowing it. In fact the age-old practice of spreading manure on fields is hazardous to groundwater. The consequences of this practice have been minimal for the most part because of relatively low demands for animal products. However, with the global population explosion more and more animals are needed to provide food. More animals results in more manure and more pollution. These “nitrates, created from commonly used nitrogen-based farm fertilizers, manure and human wastes, are a growing worry. This fast moving pollutant, with no taste, odor or colour, can stop infants from breathing and is suspected of causing stomach cancer”, (Gorrie 75-76). The more nitrogen that farmers put on their fields, the more nitrates will appear in groundwater. Farmers also produce another form of groundwater pollution through the use of pesticides. In 1989 it was found “that six commonly used pesticides had been found in groundwater under seven provinces”, (Gorrie 74). Ontario was one of these provinces. These pesticides are the suspected cause of many birth defects, cancers, and other serious health problems. This problem is particularly hard to avoid for most farmers, because chemical companies do not have to reveal what chemicals they use in their products. Most farmers as well have some form of fuel storage for there tractors and other equipment. Fuel storage facilities are often old, leaky, and a major hazard to groundwater supplies. There has been new legislation in past years to clean up these leaky tanks, but still more needs to be done.
As Ontarians look toward the future, one must examine the ways in which precious groundwater supplies can be conserved. Clean-up is one way to try and restore some clean groundwater. Cleaning these polluted aquifers is costly, difficult, and does not make much of an impact. All the resources needed to clean a tainted aquifers will only insure a 50% recovery rate. This means that the aquifers are never suitable for drinking again, and the pollution is merely stopped from spreading. Most groundwater experts would advise to abandon these polluted aquifers, and to concentrate on the prevention of further pollution. As Gorrie writes, “a dollar of protection, of education or legislation, is worth hundreds of thousands in cleanup”,(Gorrie 78). There must be changes made in legislation to insure that Ontario’s groundwater supplies are safe for generations to come. New laws that make polluters accountable for there actions, are needed. A change in how septic systems are laid would help as well, “laying the tile bed in organic material like peat rather than in the current gravel, is among the solutions being suggested”, (Gorrie 76). New legislation is also needed to make someone accountable for old shut down mines. There needs to be more restrictions on dry-cleaning plants, and how and where they operate. “Even air vents blowing down are problem”, (Gorrie 74), for pollution of ground water in these plants. There also needs to be strict groundwater protection plans at every level of government. The city of Waterloo has some of the toughest zoning laws in Canada. These zoning laws ensure that possible high risk polluters cannot build businesses on top of aquifers. The last concern in the prevention of groundwater pollution is farmers. They have to change there agricultural practices to make a change in the safety of Ontario water. Although there have been new, stricter laws made for farmers which limit the amount of pesticides they are able to use, and laws which require them to be educated on their correct use, farmers still need to use far less chemical fertilizer than they do right now. As well, the urban farmer needs to change his/her agricultural practices. Although people in urban areas have only small gardens, flower beds, and lawns etc. they use 10 times the amount of chemical that a farmer uses today.
In conclusion, our groundwater is a precious, non-renewable resource. The only way to insure it is here and healthy for future generations is prevention. Prevention means using fewer chemicals and fertilizers (farmers and gardeners), replacing old leaky chemical storage tanks (gasoline and others), developing tough new legislation on the handling of toxic materials (such as mine tailings), containing the spread of chemicals thru household septic systems, and imposing strict zoning bylaws over important aquifers.