Walkerton Water Crisis Follow-up

Even in the seclusion of her church office, Pastor Beth Conroy could not escape Walkerton's toll of tragedy.

Walkerton Water Crisis Follow-up

Even in the seclusion of her church office, Pastor Beth Conroy could not escape Walkerton's toll of tragedy. The last of the television satellite trucks had just left the parking lot of Trinity Lutheran Church, and now the minister was trying to steal a few moments to contemplate how the Ontario town of 5,000 could heal itself. Then, the phone rang. As she listened, Conroy's face became sad, her voice even more sombre - as the caller informed her that deaths from the lethal strain of E. coli in the town's water had reached seven (by week's end, the coroner was investigating four more). Seconds after Conroy hung up, the whirr of helicopter blades could be heard as yet another critically ill patient was transferred from the local hospital to a larger facility in London, Ont. But Conroy tried to put a brave face on things. People in poorer parts of the world, she noted, "live with this kind of water on a daily basis, and they don't get generous gifts or so many people volunteering to help. For many, hearing a helicopter means war and guns, yet they don't have medical teams to treat the victims. One thing this community has to understand is how blessed we are."

For many residents nestled along this part of the Saugeen River valley in southwestern Ontario, in the richest province in one of the richest countries of the world, understanding was in short supply. Last week, Walkerton seemed to have become part movie set, part ghost town. As the media invasion - including reporters from BBC and CNN - broadcast the community's misfortune to the world, hundreds of residents escaped to bunk with friends and relatives elsewhere. Some who had been afflicted with the Escherichia coli bacteria were recovering from their symptoms, which included severe bouts of bloody diarrhea, but others were not so fortunate. Almost everyone felt at least some connection to the deceased - Lenore Al was a former part-time librarian, Betty Trushinski was the town-hall janitor's wife, Mary Rose Raymond was the two-year-old daughter of a doctor from nearby Hanover. Familiar faces from the Walkerton area - gone.

Questions, meanwhile, piled up faster than answers trickled out. At a town council meeting, Linda Dietrich, a grandmother of two Walkerton children stricken by the bug, epitomized the frustration. "When are we going to get a straight answer on what is happening to our children in this town?" she screamed. Later, Dietrich told reporters her questions were basic. "Why did this happen?" she asked. "How are we going to stop it? When will it be safe for our kids to go out and play?" And at baseball diamonds, outside the firehall, at checkout counters and through at least one class-action lawsuit, people were also pursuing the big issue: who is to blame?

At Queen's Park, the opposition pointed at Premier Mike Harris. In 1995, the new Tory government closed down all four government water laboratories and handed responsibility for water and sewage to municipalities. Walkerton had always been in charge of its own water supply, but with no system of certification for private labs and no real legal requirements for testing water and reporting, the scene was set, critics say, for the collapse of what fragile checks and balances existed. Last week, a visibly shaken Dan Newman, the province's environment minister, promised tough new regulations to tighten up the system. By Wednesday, with telephones ringing off the hook and a restless caucus pressing for more, the Tories gave in to opposition demands for an independent public inquiry.

Pressure then mounted for compensation for the E. coli victims and their families, and at week's end the government announced an initial $100,000 emergency fund. Operation of Walkerton's water and sewage system, meanwhile, was handed over to Ontario's Clean Water Agency, a Crown corporation that oversees about one-third of the municipal systems in the province. The first step: flushing the pipes in the community's 2,400 buildings, which at an estimated rate of 200 locations a day should take about two weeks to complete. Even at that, officials warn it could be as long as two months before residents can safely turn on the taps again.

Investigators are now focusing on the town's three main wells and the underground water basins that feed them as the possible source of contamination. "A preliminary hydrogeologic investigation established that all three wells have possible pathways that would allow contamination to enter," engineer Steve Burns told a news conference late last week. A contributing factor could have been the torrential downpour that struck on May 12 and caused flooding, although investigators have ruled out the rainfall as a principal reason.

Could it have been avoided? Yes - that was the contention of Dr. Murray McQuigge, medical officer of health for the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Health Unit. On May 23, he held a news conference and said the local Public Utility Commission had been aware of problems with the town's water five days before. But when McQuigge, who had learned from an Owen Sound doctor about two mysterious cases of E. coli infection in Walkerton residents, asked about the town's water, he was told three times the supply was safe, he said. On his own initiative, McQuigge issued a boil-water warning on May 21. But by then it was too late for some.

The man in charge of the water supply - and at the centre of much of the controversy swirling around the disaster - finally appeared in public in his home town last week after a week-long absence. Stan Koebel, manager of Walkerton's Public Utility Commission, attended a private church service at Trinity Lutheran, accompanied by his wife and two children. He did not speak, but stood next to his Toronto-based lawyer, Bill Trudell, who told a gathering in the church parking lot his client was under doctor's care (at week's end he was also under police protection). "He is a man who is suffering a great deal, along with many others," Trudell said. "He has been devastated with the loss of lives, and suggestions that he or anyone is to blame. However, he is very grateful for the compassion and understanding that has been shown."

Some residents of Walkerton were sympathetic towards Koebel. And as the community rallied and volunteers distributed donated supplies of diapers, water, bleach and juice at the community centre, some also remained optimistic. "It's going to be tough for a while, but I do believe we'll get back on track," said local real estate agent Paul Kueneman. "This is a resilient little community - when this is all over, we'll probably have the best water in the country."

But opinions on the provincial government were another matter, as both locals and opposition MPPs took aim at the Harris Tories. Liberal environment critic and former environment minister Jim Bradley noted that a Walkerton-style crisis was unavoidable, given that the Harris government has cut about 40 per cent ($400 million) of the Environment budget and laid off of 900 of the ministry's 2,400 employees since 1995. But Bradley, speaking in the legislature, went further: he claimed that when the cuts started, the Tories also developed a secret legal strategy to deal with the possibility of civil suits arising from allegations of negligence. That means, Bradley claimed, that the Tories knew full well cutbacks would make it difficult to protect the environment.

For many, the answer is simple: Queen's Park should still be responsible for water safety. "The provincial government's lack of involvement has set the stage for this to happen," said one former environment ministry field inspector. According to McQuigge, the Walkerton tragedy showed that clean water should not be taken for granted. "It doesn't get any more basic," he told Maclean's in his Owen Sound office. "Clean water is the start of public health back in the 1800s." In Walkerton, that lesson has been learned at a terrible cost.

Maclean's June 12, 2000