Canada

Anger, disbelief over evidence at E. coli inquiry

Now that Walkerton's former water manager has finished testifying at the inquiry into a deadly E. coli outbreak, many people in the community appear torn over what they've heard.

"Everyone has a level of forgiveness in them," said one woman. "But the level of anger, I don't know how long that's going to take to go away."

"I'm heartsick," said one another woman. "I really feel awful."

For three days at the inquiry, Koebel admitted to being distracted and making mistakes that he didn't realize the seriousness of the problem last May.

He repeatedly told inquiry lawyer Brian Gover he had faith in Walkerton's water, despite water tests that showed E. coli contamination.

Koebel said he tried to flush the bacteria from Walkerton's water just before the Victoria Day weekend. But he never warned health officials or the public about the danger.

He denied the decision to flush was a cover-up. However, both Stan Koebel and his brother, Frank, admitted they routinely falsified water samples and chlorination records.

The tainted water killed seven people and made about 2,000 others sick.

Koebel told the inquiry he should never have held such an important post at the public utilities commission because he lacked the education and training to do the job.

Qualified people turned down for jobs

Such admissions of incompetence have led to strong reactions from experts in water management, including one who sent an e-mail to CBC News Online.

Zoran Mrdja said he spent several years gaining education and experience in water supply management before coming to Canada. He tried a number of times to get a similar position in Ontario, but was always told he was overqualified.

"For last 15 years I was working as a professional engineer around the world in design and construction of municipal infrastructure mainly water supply and sewage. Even in undeveloped countries I had no problem with such stupid things like E. coli," he wrote.

"As manager of water supply system in city of Sombor (Yugoslavia) I was responsible for more than 100,000 residents. Having the war zone just 38 kilometres away, my responsibilities were extreme."

Larry A. Tilander wrote about government cutbacks that hurt his chances of becoming the operator of a water treatment plant in Ontario after his training.

"I did really well, and at the end of the course travelled the province from Cornwall to Hamilton to Geraldton," he wrote. "Everywhere it was the same story: 'Oh yeah, we need help, but with the government cutbacks we can't hire anyone. We have less people and more plants every month.'"

"I went back to school and became an industrial maintenance mechanic to try to improve my chances at a job in the field. Still the cutbacks. Finally after trying to get into a plant for four years I settled into another field."

"That is why there just aren't qualified people working in your municipal treatment facilities, and why people died in Walkerton."

Some Walkerton residents feeling 'hurt'

Pastor Beth Conroy, of Walkerton's Trinity Lutheran Church, says her parishioners have divided feelings. While some support Koebel, "others are really hurt and don't know where they stand," she said.

For her part, the pastor praised Koebel for having the courage to tell the truth and accept responsibility, saying he passed up easy opportunities to blame others.

On Jan. 8, the inquiry will begin hearing from another key witness, Dr. Murray McQuigge, the chief medical officer who issued the boil-water advisory that would last six months.

In February, the inquiry will look at how government policies contributed to the tragedy.

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