Inside Walkerton: Canada's worst-ever E. coli contamination

Seven people died and hundreds were made ill from drinking contaminated water in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000. And according to the local medical officer of health, it all could have been prevented.

The shock, the investigation and the aftermath

Walkerton Mayor David Thomson stares at a pitcher and several glasses of water before a speech on his town's tainted water tragedy in the summer of 2000. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

What have we learned?

E. coli may have put Walkerton on the map, but the disaster's legacy may be a much keener appreciation of just how fragile our water supply can be.

Canada's worst-ever outbreak of E. coli contamination took hold 10 years ago in a typically quiet town in the rural heartland of Bruce County, Ont.

The community of Walkerton, population less than 5,000 at the time, saw 2,300 people fall ill, and seven die, after breakdowns in the local water system. The region's public health officer later said the catastrophe was probably preventable.

Here is a timeline of the events:

May 15, 2000

Walkerton's local public utilities commission (PUC) takes routine sample of the water supply.

May 17, 2000

First symptoms of contaminated water appear, including diarrhea and flu-like illnesses. PUC receives a fax from a lab confirming E. coli contamination in May 15 water sample. The utilities commission does not notify public-health officials, however.

May 19, 2000

Region's Medical Health Office (MHO) first notified about several patients with bloody diarrhea. The MHO later finds out that local doctors had been treating patients with symptoms including bloody diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever since May 17. 

PUC, run by Stan Koebel, assures health officials that the water is safe. MHO begins looking for other source of contamination, such as food.

May 20, 2000

As many as 40 more people report to hospital with bloody diarrhea.

PUC reassures officials at least twice that Walkerton's water supply is safe.

May 21, 2000

With more cases of illness reported, MHO officially warns residents not to drink untreated tap water. MHO also takes independent water samples, despite being told by PUC there is no contamination.

May 23, 2000

MHO's own lab confirms water is tainted with E. coli. 

After confronting PUC with test results, MHO is finally told about May 17 fax. Health officials are also informed that the equipment used to put chlorine into at least one drinking well has not worked for some time.

Q&A: Safe drinking water

Steve Hrudey, a water expert and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, sat on the Walkerton inquiry panel. Hrudey tells CBC News about Canadian water safety since Walkerton and the kinds of improvements that still need to be made to ensure access to safe drinking water.

May 24, 2000

The first four deaths, three adults and a baby, are reported as a result of the E. coli outbreak. Local schools are closed.

May 25, 2000

A fifth person dies after being infected with E. coli.

Dr. Murray McQuigge, the region's medical officer of health, stuns the country with his revelation on CBC Radio that the PUC knew there was a problem with the water several days before they told the public.

The regional police force asks the Ontario Provincial Police to conduct a criminal investigation into the origins of the outbreak.

May 26, 2000

Ontario Premier Mike Harris visits Walkerton, saying, "We have a terrible tragedy here." The rest of his comments — including blaming the previous, NDP government — anger residents. Within the week, he orders a public inquiry.

May 27, 2000

The president of water-testing firm GAP EnviroMicrobial Services, Garry Palmateer, says that sampling done in January turned up evidence of coliform bacteria — an indication that surface water was seeping into the well water. He says his company notified the Ontario Environment Ministry about the problem five times.

May 29, 2000

A clearly shaken Environment Minister Dan Newman calls a news conference to announce changes to ensure that the province's water supply remains safe.

May 30, 2000

The deadly bacterial outbreak claims its sixth victim, an elderly patient who was being cared for at a local hospital.

May 31, 2000

A hospital 140 kilometres south in London, Ont., confirms that a 56-year-old woman has died, bringing the final fatality count in the contaminated-water catastrophe to seven. Nearly 2,300 people fall ill at some point from the water.

October 2000

The public inquiry begins into the tainted-water catastrophe.

Jan. 9, 2001

Walkerton-area councillors vote to dissolve the public utilities commission, the body that managed the town's drinking water. 

Council postpones voting on former PUC manager Stan Koebel's $98,000 severance package. 

Key witness Dr. Murray McQuigge, the regional medical officer of health, testifies at the inquiry. McQuigge says the disaster could probably have been avoided if Koebel had not kept critical laboratory tests a secret. 

Inquiry counsel Paul Calvalluzzo questions McQuigge about why he didn't invoke emergency procedures. McQuigge responds that it was the mayor's responsibility.

Jan. 10, 2001

McQuigge testifies that the mayor, David Thomson, "was letting our credibility hang out there in the wind" by not telling what he knew. 

McQuigge suggests cutbacks and the privatization of water-testing labs by the Ontario government were partly to blame for the water contamination.

Feb. 1, 2001

A compensation deal is offered to Walkerton residents, whereby every one of them would receive a minimum of $2,000 from the Ontario government to settle a class-action lawsuit. The payments aren't capped: Those who fell seriously ill or had relatives die would be eligible for even more money, as would be anyone who suffers health problems down the road.

March 19, 2001

Ontario Superior Court Chief Justice Patrick Lesage rules on the settlement to the class action suit, ending all civil litigation among the 13 parties involved. 

The Walkerton Compensation Plan aims to "do the right thing for the victims of this tragedy," Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Murdoch says. "Now people can get on with rebuilding their lives."

Death on tap

CBC Archives looks back at the poisoning of Walkerton. This special report contains TV and radio reports from 2000 to 2004.

April 23, 2001

Walkerton town council votes to pay Stan Koebel $84,000 in severance rather than face him in court. Under their original deal announced in the fall, he was to receive $98,000. 

May 10, 2001

The Ontario government announces it will spend $25 million on safe drinking water and clean air in the provincial budget.

May 15, 2001

The one-year anniversary of the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton. Part 1B of the public hearings continues. They are expected to conclude in late June or July.

June 29, 2001

Premier Mike Harris testifies before the Walkerton inquiry, becoming the first premier to testify before a judicial inquiry in Ontario in more than half a century.

Aug. 16, 2001

A lawyer for the government of Ontario blames the Walkerton contamination on Stan Koebel, the former PUC manager, in his closing statements at the inquiry.

Aug. 22, 2001

In his closing statements, Bill Trudel, Koebel's lawyer, argues that several events contributed to the Walkerton tragedy and tells the inquiry "the blame game has got to stop."

Aug. 25, 2001 

Investigators for the Walkerton water inquiry search Premier Mike Harris's office for a third time. A spokesman for the inquiry says the search of the office's computer servers was to make sure the collection of government documents was as thorough as possible.

Nov. 26, 2001

A report commissioned by the inquiry estimates the economic impact of the Walkerton disaster to be $155 million. The total includes household and corporate spending on bottled water and disinfection equipment, the crisis's effect on real estate values, costs to fix the water system, and lost business revenues.

Stan Koebel, left, arrives with his brother, Frank, for a court appearance in Walkerton on June 10, 2003. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Jan. 3, 2002

Walkerton town councillors hold a meeting to discuss the future of Frank Koebel, Stan's brother and the ex-foreman of the PUC.

Jan. 16, 2002

First inquiry report by Justice Dennis O'Connor leaked to the public four days earlier than its scheduled release.

Jan. 17, 2002 

The Ontario government asks police to investigate the leak of the Walkerton report.

Jan. 18, 2002 

Justice O'Connor issues a scathing report saying Canada's worst E. coli outbreak could have been prevented by the Ontario government and Walkerton's water supply managers. Had Stan Koebel properly monitored chlorine levels in the town's drinking water, and had the provincial government not cut Environment Ministry funding, illnesses could have been prevented, O'Connor says.

January 2002 

Inquiry continues to investigate files from the office of Premier Mike Harris.

May 23, 2002 

A second report is released to lay out more comprehensive recommendations covering all aspects of the province's water system.

March 25, 2003 

Ontario announces it will resume scrutinizing the laboratories that monitor Ontario's drinking water. 

Stan and Frank Koebel are charged in the public-health disaster. They face one count each of public nuisance, uttering a forgery and breach of public duty.

Nov. 30, 2004 

Stan and Frank Koebel plead guilty to common nuisance. The charge carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison. Crown attorneys drop the forgery and breach of trust charges in exchange for the guilty pleas.

Dec. 20, 2004 

Stan Koebel is sentenced to a year in jail. Frank Koebel gets nine months' house arrest. Ontario Superior Court Judge Bruce Durno stresses there was never any intent on the part of the Koebels to harm anyone, but he finds them negligent in discharging their duties.