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Walkerton Inquiry: 'This could've been prevented'

In May 2000, bacteria seeped into Walkerton's town well. The deadly E. coli then slipped quietly through a maze of pipes and into the homes of Walkerton, Ont. Unsuspecting residents thirstily drank the polluted water and bathed in their bacteria-ridden tubs. But soon after, they began experiencing common symptoms of infection; bloody diarrhea and throbbing cramps. Seven people would eventually die and another 1286 would fall ill. The investigation which followed exposed an alarmingly unstable waterworks system made fragile by government cuts.

Town councillor Charlie Bagnato is pleased with Justice Dennis O'Connor's Walkerton Inquiry report. Bagnatto calls the trial a Herculean effort and says that the blame fell appropriately on the shoulders of the Koebel brothers and the provincial government. But the report has done little to bring closure for Bagnatto, close to two years after the E. coli epidemic. He still refuses to drink the water. "We have a psychological problem," he explains in this CBC News special. "I cannot drink the water."

In his lengthy 700-page report O'Connor criticized, among other things, communication weaknesses between the local public health boards and the training of water works operators. O'Connor also condemned cutbacks made by the provincial government, specifically by Premier Mike Harris and former Environment minister Norm Sterling. "This could have been prevented," O'Connor said when releasing the official report. 
• "The people of Walkerton have suffered enormously. I've heard about it. I've seen it. It has been an enormous tragedy. But I know that the people here in Walkerton feel strongly that something good should come from all of this." – Justice Dennis O'Connor, Jan. 19, 2002

• Justice O'Connor released his findings in two phases. The first report was issued Jan. 18, 2002, as shown in this clip. The second report was published May 23, 2002. In his second report, O'Connor presented an extensive plan for fixing Ontario's water systems. O'Connor made 93 recommendations.

• Recommendations included:
- accredited water-testing laboratories should be submitted to periodic inspection
- creations of new departments within the Ministry of Environment dedicated to watershed management and drinking-water treatment.
- routine updating of water treatment standards.

• Premier Ernie Eves committed to implementing all of these recommendations in June 2002. Eves was sworn in as premier of Ontario April 2002 after Mike Harris announced he would be stepping down.
• "Certainly I, as the head of government and the cabinet, made no reductions in expenditures that we believed would affect the health and safety of any citizen in Ontario," – Premier Mike Harris in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 19, 2002

• "I heard Justice O'Connor say the report speaks for itself. Two pages discuss the wrongdoings of the Koebels. Thirteen pages discuss the wrongdoings of the provincial government. I think the report speaks for itself." — NDP Leader Howard Hampton, Jan. 18, 2002

• At the release of the report, Bruce Davidson, the spokesman for Concerned Walkerton Citizens, criticized the Harris government harshly. "They rolled the dice and we paid with our lives," he said of the provincial government. "The Common Sense Revolution takes no prisoners."
• The cost of the inquiry, which spanned more than nine months, totalled $9 million - the most expensive in Ontario's history.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: Jan. 18, 2002
Guest(s): Charlie Bagnato
Host: Nancy Wilson
Duration: 4:05

Last updated: March 26, 2012

Page consulted on February 13, 2014

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