CBC In Depth
Inside Walkerton
Canada's worst-ever E. coli contamination
CBC News Online | Updated Dec. 20, 2004

"We have a terrible tragedy here."

Mike Harris
With those words, then Ontario Premier Mike Harris waded into the Walkerton, Ont., water crisis on Friday, May 26, 2000. He addressed a crowd of reporters and residents in the normally quiet town in Ontario's rural heartland – a part of the province that normally gears up for a flood of fun seekers at this time of year.

Instead, Walkerton began the transition into the town "where those kids died from E. coli." It's not what anyone wanted, but it was the end result. Reporters from around North America descended on the area, trying to get to the bottom of Canada's worst-ever outbreak of E. coli contamination. Seven people died from drinking contaminated water. Hundreds suffered from the symptoms of the disease, not knowing if they too would die.

According to the local medical officer of health, it all could have been prevented. Dr. Murray McQuigge stunned the country with his revelation on CBC Radio on May 25, 2000 that the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission knew there was a problem with the water several days before they told the public.

The impact of discovering that the young and the old in a small Ontario town were dying from drinking town water will reverberate throughout Ontario and the country for years. Premier Harris immediately blamed the former NDP government for loosening water standards. Within a week he had announced public inquiry that wound up laying part of the blame for the Walkerton disaster on cutbacks ordered by the Harris government.

Koebel asks for privacy

Walkerton map

The manager at the heart of the controversy, Stan Koebel, was in charge of the Public Utilities Commission.

When the local medical officer of health, Dr. Murray McQuigge, revealed that Walkerton had a problem with its water, he said the PUC knew the water supply was contaminated days before the public was informed.

At the time Koebel said he was shocked, and it was revealed he was under the care of a doctor. He made one brief appearance before the hordes of reporters, but his goal was to stay in isolation. His friends insisted he would never knowingly put people at risk.

The inquiry

Koebel's name came up many times as the inquiry into Walkerton's water opened in the town in October, 2000, five months after the trouble first came to light.

The inquiry was called to look into how the water was contaminated with the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria.

It found that illnesses could have been prevented if Koebel had monitored chlorine levels in the drinking water. It also pointed to deregulation of water testing and cuts to the Environment Ministry by the Ontario government as contributing factors.

Ontario addresses water safety

It didn't take long for a political battle to ensue. On May 29, 2000, a clearly shaken Ontario Environment Minister Dan Newman called a news conference to say changes would be made to ensure that the province's water supply remained safe.

"If there is something positive that can ever come out of an event like this, it is that changes be made to ensure that it doesn't ever happen again," he said at the Ontario legislature.

The Ontario Tories lost the next election to the Liberals, who campaigned, in part, on providing safer drinking water.

Economic impact

A 60-page study released in November 2001 concluded that the Walkerton water tragedy cost at least $64.5 million and an estimated $155 million, if human suffering was factored in. Each household in the town of 5,000 spent about $4,000 on average as a result of the contamination, for a total of $6.9 million. The study weighed in the costs and benefits of providing safe drinking water.

The study also concluded that real estate values in Walkerton fell a total of $1.1-million as a result of the contamination of the water supply. Costs for the town's businesses, for items such as bottled water or disinfecting and replacing equipment, are estimated at $651,422.

Lost revenues from May 1, 2000, to April 30, 2001, were estimated at $2.7 million. The study estimates that it cost more than $9 million to fix the town's water system, while the Ontario government spent about $3.5 million on legal fees and another $1.5 million to supply clean water to institutions.

On March 25, 2003 Stan Koebel and his brother Frank were charged with public nuisance, uttering and forgery and breach of public duty. Frank Koebel was the foreman of the town Public Utilities Commission. On November 30, 2004, the pleaded guilty. Three weeks later, Stan Koebel was sentenced to a year in jail. Frank Koebel was sentenced to nine months house arrest.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Durno took more than two hours to read out and explain his ruling. He stressed there was never any intent on the part of the Koebels to harm anyone, but found them negligent in discharging their duties.


RELATED: Water Cryptosporidium E.coli

Print this page

Send a comment

Indepth Index