E. coli outbreak a 'wake-up call'

The doctor who first sounded the alarm in the Walkerton E. coli outbreak has issued a report into the disaster, warning that Canadians must re-evaluate and improve ways of protecting and treating ground water.

Six people died and more than 2,000 others in the town of 5,000 got sick from drinking water contaminated with E. coli. It was Canada's worst-ever outbreak of the deadly bacteria.

The Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Health Unit released the results of its investigation Tuesday into the deadly E. coli outbreak.

"This tragedy . . . is a wake-up call that perhaps we need a better system of not only treating municipal water supplies, but protecting them as well," says Dr. Murray McQuigge, who was the region's medical health officer when the outbreak happened.

In Tuesday's report, McQuigge says he believes contaminated manure from farms and vulnerable deep wells caused the water disaster.

He says heavy rain last May washed cattle manure infected with E. coli into one of the town's wells. The waste combined with muddy water overwhelmed the municipal water treatment system.

Shortly after the outbreak happened, McQuigge blew the whistle on the Walkerton's Public Utilities Commission, the local water-regulating authority.

He said officials there knew the water was contaminated on May 15, two days before people began to show symptoms of sickness.

Eventually McQuigge's office issued its own warnings telling people not to drink the water.

Five months later, Walkerton is still under a boil-water advisory. Residents there rely on bottled water.

McQuigge released his report at Walkerton's community centre. The meeting was meant to rebuild the trust of town residents, who have waited a long time for answers.

"Psychologically to me, to turn my water on is like touching a hot stove. How soon will this clear up?" one woman asked McQuigge Tuesday.

But there were few answers as to when Walkerton's water will be safe again.

"We're guinea pigs," said another Walkerton resident. "This has never happened before."

Residents have launched a class-action lawsuit against the health unit, the utilities commission and the Ontario government, which is currently considering requests for compensation.

A provincial inquiry is set to start Monday to examine the causes of the disaster and to investigate the safety of drinking water in Ontario.

The province brought in new water regulations after the Walkerton outbreak. Environment Minister Dan Newman says Ontario plans to inspect all 630 of its water works.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman says the province is still considering legislation to regulate waste from farms. He would not confirm when he would introduce the new bill, even though McQuigge's report blames farm runoff for Walkerton's E. coli contamination.

Critics say cutbacks by the current Ontario government have fatally compromised standards. The Conservatives say they inherited a mess from the former NDP government.