Key witness fit to testify at Walkerton inquiry

A psychiatrist has cleared Stan Koebel, the man at the centre of Walkerton's tainted water disaster, to testify at a judicial inquiry as early as this week.

Koebel was in charge of Walkerton's water supply last May, when E. coli contaminated the drinking water and killed seven people. More than half of the town of 5,000 got sick.

Bill Trudell, Koebel's lawyer, had suggested the key witness was too fragile to take the stand. Koebel underwent psychiatric tests on Friday.

On Monday, inquiry counsel Paul Cavalluzzo announced that Koebel was mentally competent to testify.

"Mr. Koebel's side of the story is very important to the inquiry and we're very happy that this has occurred," Cavalluzzo said.

To allow Koebel to testify this week, inquiry officials and Trudell agreed to conditions that take into account Koebel's mental state.

Trudell will also ask for a slight change to inquiry procedure, to question his own client first before the commission's lawyer and other counsel cross-examine Koebel.

Trudell, who had originally asked for Koebel to be excused from the inquiry, said his client is anxious to tell his side of the story.

"I think he's relieved and he wants to testify and move ahead," said Trudell.

Koebel had been on medical leave since May, and has been described as suicidal at times.

The town learned last week that the water system manager resigned Nov. 17 with a severance package worth $98,000.

It's a story that becomes more disturbing as testimony goes on. Last week, Koebel's brother and the foreman of the water system, Frank Koebel, told of drinking on the job and falsifying water test samples.

He also said there was an attempt to cover up a broken down chlorination system.

The chlorine could have neutralized the bacteria when heavy rains washed animal waste into one of the town's wells from a nearby farm.

But now having heard from the mayor of the municipality and at least one of the employees in charge of caring for the water supply, the inquiry will call on health officials to tell their version of events.

Some time in the next two weeks, Dr. Murray McQuigge, the medical officer of health who uncovered the problems and first alleged there had been a cover-up will testify. He has said the tragedy could have been avoided.

In this phase of the inquiry, tough questions will be asked of the local health officials, which will also point to the provincial Ministry of the Environment.

Both were aware the town's water supply had a history of problems dating back to 1995.