Canada

Mayor appears at Walkerton water inquiry

The mayor of Brockton, an area which includes Walkerton, recounted a stormy emergency meeting which left him "dumbfounded," as Canada's worst E. coli oubreak was unfolding.

David Thomson testified Wednesday at a judicial inquiry looking into how Walkerton's water was contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria in May. Seven people died and more than 2,000 got sick.

Thomson recalled a meeting in late May with Dr. Murray McQuigge, the area's medical officer of health, and Stan Koebel, the manager of the town's water supply, who appeared "extremely broken up."

"I would say that he was a person that was in tremendous stress," Thomson testified. The mayor said Koebel appeared to concede he knew for several days the water wasn't safe.

"Come on, come on, Stan, come clean," the mayor recalled an upset McQuigge saying.

A "very agitated" McQuigge told the mayor they were looking at Canada's worst outbreak of E. coli and warned him to expect national media attention. Already, 11 people were in hospital, a two-year-old girl was dying and hundreds were sick.

The men talked about possible sources of the contamination and an action plan. Then as the meeting was ending, Thomson testified McQuigge leaned over and said: "Don't you blow the whistle on me or Brockton will ..."

Thomson said the doctor trailed off. The mayor said he believes McQuigge meant he didn't want people blaming the health unit.

All in all, McQuigge's behaviour, "was not very professional," Thomson said.

McQuigge has been praised as the first person to warn the public about the water. He has criticized municipal officials for not acting quicker in a tragedy he said could have been prevented.

Earlier, Thomson testified he read government inspection reports about the dangers of Escherichia coliform, but he didn't realize that bacteria and E. coli, its more common name, were the same thing.

Thomson's testimony continues on Thursday.

Thomson was elected mayor of the merged municipality in late 1998. He was re-elected in this month's municipal elections in Ontario.

Unusually heavy rains this spring washed animal waste, and deadly E. coli, into a well that supplied Walkerton with its drinking water.

The inquiry has already heard that the PUC didn't properly test the water, or ensure there were enough amounts of chlorine to get rid of bacteria.

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