Confidentiality comes before public health, Walkerton Inquiry told

Without clear provincial water laws, private testing labs were advised to put confidentiality ahead of public health, the Walkerton Inquiry was told Tuesday.

The judicial probe is assessing whether government policies contributed to last May's water tragedy.

It was a private lab that found E.coli in Walkerton's water last May.

The lab director, Robert Deacon, earlier told the inquiry he immediately picked up the telephone and told Stan Koebel, who was then Walkerton's water manager, what he'd found.

"I verbally told him the plate was covered with coliform bacteria and E.coli bacteria," said Deacon.

However, Deacon did not call the Ministry of Environment as required at the time by provincial guidelines.

Deacon said those rules were not laws and he had an obligation to his client to keep the information confidential.

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard from Rick Wilson, whose organization certifies private water testing labs across the country.

Wilson explained that in the absence of provincial laws, or a special contract, his agency advises private labs such as Deacon's to keep test results private.

"The international standard and the code of ethics require the lab to report to its client and no one else," said Wilson.

After Walkerton's water contamination, Ontario brought in a law requiring labs to report all problems with drinking water to health and environment authorities, leaving all labs torn between protecting client confidentiality and protecting public health.