Ontario's water system was in disarray after privatization, inquiry hears

The public inquiry into the water tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., has entered a phase anticipated by many who want to know what role provincial government policies played in the tragedy.

The probe is examining how the town's drinking water became contaminated with E. coli last May, killing seven people and making more than 2,000 sick.

Now, the province has to answer questions about cutbacks and privatization to see if they contributed to the disaster.

Three senior officials with the Ministry of the Environment testifying this week have revealed that as early as 1987, Ontario's auditor complained about a lack of inspections at water and sewage treatment plants.

So, Ontario hired more inspectors. In 1990, the province inspected all of its more than 600 municipal water works.

But after the Conservative government of Mike Harris took power in 1995, water testing was privatized and hundreds of jobs were cut at the ministry.

Robert Shaw, a director at the ministry, testified that inspections of water works were left in disarray.

"Practices varied widely," he said, "in terms of the kinds of documentation that would be done."

Between 1995 and 2000, fewer than one-third of all water plants in Ontario were examined each year.

"There had been a significant reduction in ministry-initiated inspections since 1996," said inquiry lawyer Paul Cavaluzzo. "While regional staff was reduced by over 25 per cent during this period, ministry-initiated inspections decrease by 34 per cent."

This inquiry has heard that an inspector examined Walkerton's water works in 1998, and found problems. But the ministry issued no order for repairs, and did little follow up.

After last May's deadly E. coli contamination, the province launched inspections at all municipal water systems and found problems at more than half.

This time, repairs and upgrades were ordered.