Thirsty for Answers
The tenth anniversary of the Walkerton water tragedy is in May. Has Canada learned its lesson?
Drinking water shouldn’t make you sick. But for several harrowing months ten years ago, turning on the tap in the farming town of Walkerton, Ontario meant risking exposure to a deadly strain of E. coli—o157:h7.
What happened that May has been well documented. After heavy rainfall washed bacteria from cattle manure into the town well, known for years to be vulnerable to contamination, residents began to experience bloody diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and fever—all symptoms of E. coli.
Although the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission received a fax confirming the presence of E. coli in the water on May 15, 2000, it assured the Medical Health Officer that the water was safe. But on May 23, the Medical Health Officer came forward with his own results and publicly declared Canada’s worst E. coli outbreak.
Almost half the town’s 5,000 people were affected. More than 2,300 people became ill and seven people died, including a twoyear old girl who was visiting Walkerton on Mother’s Day. The cost of cleanup, including human suffering, was estimated at $155 million. Some residents still suffer side effects from the disease, including diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, and kidney damage. Some are on medication for the rest of their lives.
The 2002 Walkerton inquiry, led by Justice Dennis O’Connor, found that the tragedy was preventable. He blamed it on the mismanagement of the Public Utilities Commission where staff routinely falsified daily operating reports; some didn’t even realize that E. coli was a health hazard. But he also blamed the tragedy on the Ontario government's budget cuts and the Ministry of Environment's ineptitude.
Indeed, nine months before Walkerton’s outbreak, an eerily similar E. coli contamination occurred at a fair in New York state. The associated inquiry report was published just six weeks before Walkerton’s outbreak.
“Walkerton could have occurred in a number of locations,” says Bruce Davidson, co-founder of Concerned Walkerton Citizens. “The provision of drinking water in many of our small and remote communities was not being actualized as a professional operation.”
Eleven months after Walkerton, an outbreak of Cryptosporidium occurred in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, causing 6,000 to fall ill.
“North Battleford was an even clearer example than Walkerton of municipal mismanagement,” says Dr. Steve Hrudey, drinking water expert and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. “Probably the most tangible example is that they had a training budget of $750 and took pride in never spending a cent of it.”
The Walkerton tragedy served as a catalyst for drinking water policy reform. Justice O’Connor provided 121 recommendations, all of which are being implemented. He favoured the multi-barrier approach, which protects water throughout its journey from source to tap. Key components of the approach are a good source of water, effective treatment, a secure distribution system, continuous monitoring of the system, and an appropriate response to adverse results.
Before Walkerton, water plants had been approved using a voluntary certificate system, which often meant little oversight. Now all plants must be licensed, and certification for operators is mandatory. Ontario also appointed a Chief Drinking Water Inspector in 2003, whose latest report finds that 99.85 per cent of submitted water quality tests meet provincial standards. These tests cover systems that serve 80 per cent of Ontario’s population.
O’Connor also recommended better drinking water education and training for owners, operators, and operating authorities of drinking water systems. The Walkerton Clean Water Centre, a Government of Ontario agency, opened its doors in 2005 and has trained more than 2,700 people. The Centre also showcases new water treatment technologies and will be moving into a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold building in June 2010.
“Now we’re known as the education outreach for other communities to learn about the provision of safe drinking water,” says Walkerton Mayor Charlie Bagnato. “It’s just phenomenal how we’ve turned infamy into excellence.”