E. coli compensation plan could cost millions

The government of Ontario is offering millions of dollars in compensation to people in Walkerton whose families became ill or died because of water contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

But anyone who accepts the government's compensation deal will have to waive the right to sue for more cash in court. The province, however, has said it's willing to pay for some of the legal fees incurred by residents who reject the offer and go to court.

So far, about half a dozen law firms have said they plan to launch class-action suits on behalf of Walkerton residents.

The announcement was made late Thursday at a public meeting in the rural community, about 175 km northwest of Toronto.

"This isn't about legal liability, it's the right thing to do," Premier Mike Harris said in a news release.

The premier, who has faced steady criticism over his handling of the tragedy, did not join Ontario Attorney General Jim Flaherty and other provincial cabinet ministers in announcing the deal in Walkerton.

Flaherty said although the Supreme Court has imposed a limit on pain and suffering damages to $275,000 per person, there is more provincial assistance available.

He predicted the final amount would add up to "millions of dollars." Each claim will be reviewed on its own. Independent arbitration will be used to settle any disputes.

The money is on top of the $100,000 fund set up to help residents pay for immediate costs, such as food, bottled water, travel, and shelter.

Residents responded with mixed reactions to the compensation deal. Bruce Davidson said the town doesn't trust any offer from the Tories because Harris has tried to repeatedly deflect responsibility.

One resident shouted, "Our houses are worth nothing now for the next five to 10 years . . . What are you going to do about that?"

But others were relieved and even stunned by the offer. Wayne Holman compared the generosity of the offer to a blank cheque.

Drinking water in Walkerton has still not been declared safe, and people have been boiling water and using bleach to wash dishes or clothing.

On Thursday, the town announced plans to disinfect every water pipe leading to every building in the town of 5,000. About 30 workers will begin flushing the water system with a special chlorine solution on Sunday. Some residents will be without water for several days.

Investigators admitted Thursday they may never know what happened. One theory is that a severe rainstorm on May 12 washed bacteria from cattle manure into the town's drinking water. Others believe water purification equipment was not working properly.

At least seven people died, and 2,000 people became ill, during the worst E. coli outbreak in Canadian history.

There have also been allegations that the local public utility knew about a deadly strain of bacteria in the water but failed to alert health officers. Word of the problem emerged only as people began becoming deadly ill.

The province has ordered a public inquiry.