Walkerton report blames province, water managers

Walkerton inquiry concludes E. coli tragedy could have been prevented. Blames local water managers and provincial government.

Justice Dennis O'Connor issued a scathing report Friday saying Canada's worst E.coli outbreak could have been prevented by the Ontario government and Walkerton's water supply managers.

Seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill in May 2000 after a deadly strain of E.coli polluted the drinking water of the town.

Among O'Connor's findings:

  • Proper chlorination could have prevented the outbreak
  • Proper notification of authorities would have stopped the spread
The report says the system failed on several fronts. It says:
  • The government failed to put proper safeguards into place after privatizing the water supply
  • The men who ran the town's water supply, Stan and Frank Koebel, lied and cheated to cover their tracks
  • A weakened Ministry of Environment failed to detect the problem
  • The local health unit didn't issue a wide enough boil-water alert
  • The town's water officials didn't respond properly to quality concerns raised by the environment ministry in 1998

"This could have been prevented," said O'Connor, unveiling the report before a crowd of residents and the media in Walkerton.

"One of the things that should come from this is that we should be learning the lessons of what went wrong in Walkerton and we should design our system dealing with the different aspects of delivering safe drinking water so as to ensure that people in Ontario never face the tragedy and the trauma that the people of Walkerton have had to endure," he said.

Commission lawyer Paul Cavalluzo said "there are no criminal or civil implications" to O'Connor's findings, because it was not his mandate to draw such conclusions.

Bill Trudell, the lawyer for Walkerton's former water manager Stan Koebel, called the report "extremely fair" and "very thorough."

"We are very, very impressed by the fact that the commissioner on more than one occasion, in clear language, rejects the government's suggestion that Stan Koebel is to blame solely for this tragedy. And we're grateful for that."

Friday's report marked phase one of the Walkerton inquiry, which heard testimony from 114 witnesses over a nine-month period.

A second report, which O'Connor says he hopes to finish within two months, will lay out more comprehensive recommendations covering all aspects of the province's water system.

The report was released four days early after parts of it were leaked to the media Wednesday night. The 700-page report is being made public on the government's Web site.

Every resident of Walkerton was given an "executive summary" of the conclusions ahead of the release.

Harris apologizes

A few hours after Justice O'Connor released his report, Ontario Premier Mike Harris arrived in Walkerton to express his "deep regrets."

Harris made a point of sipping on a glass of water while he answered media questions.

"I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the government of Ontario," he told a nationally televised news conference.

"I would also like to say to the people of Walkerton on behalf of the provincial government and the people of Ontario that I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering that you have experienced."

Seven deaths were attributed to the E. coli outbreak. He said he regrets anything his government may have done that might have contributed to the contamination in the town's water supply.

"I can appreciate the crocodile tears," said Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty. "What he should have done is taken responsibility for public safety some 6 1/2 years ago and we wouldn't have had Walkerton."

But Harris disagreed with suggestions that budget cuts had been made with no concern for public safety. "I do not believe I have ever cut any expenditure, not one penny, recklessly or without thought," he said.

Walkerton resident Shirley Gosselin says her son is still suffering effects from the contamination.

"My son is still sick. You know, he has bad days and good days and everything. It's just something you're never going to forget, because you just remember everything you went through. It's something you're never ever going to get over, really," Gosselin said.