Walkerton marks 10th anniversary of tragedy

The town of Walkerton, Ont., marks the 10th anniversary Sunday of the tainted water tragedy that killed seven people in the spring of 2000.

Health effects still linger for many residents of Ontario town

Bruce Davidson, left, of the Concerned Walkerton Citizens group, speaks at the town’s No. 5 well on Sunday afternoon during an event held to mark the 10th anniversary of the town's tainted water tragedy. ((Marie Morrissey/CBC))

On Sunday afternoon, the people of Walkerton, Ont., held a memorial service to mark a grim anniversary.

It's been 10 years since the town became infamous across Canada as E. coli infected its water supply. Half of the 5,000 people who live there got sick and seven died.

Ten years ago, the sound of the air ambulance became all too familiar in Walkerton, a town located about 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

The drinking water became contaminated when cow manure washed into a well. Town staff covered up tests that found E. coli and soon many children were being airlifted to hospitals, suffering bloody diarrhea.

Tamara Smith, now 15, was one of those children and it affects her to his day.

"I'm just really worried about all tap water now," said Smith. "I sometimes drink tap water but I'm very scared to."

Charlie Bagnato is the mayor of Brockton, Ont., which includes Walkerton. Speaking during Sunday's ceremony, Bagnato said the tragedy left a permanent mark on the town.

"No words can vanquish the sorrow of losing seven people, ranging from a toddler to a woman in the prime of life," said Bagnato.

A sign posted at the height of the Walkerton tainted water tragedy in the spring of 2000 asks residents to pray for victims. Many residents of Walkerton, Ont., continue to suffer ill health effects from the water contamination 10 years ago. ((Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press))

Long-term health effects linger

Although the water has long been free of bacteria, the contamination has had long-term health effects.

Researchers say nearly 30 per cent of those who fell ill still have irritable bowel syndrome.

Walkerton resident Ron Fisk does, and other related diseases as well.

"I feel rotten. If I had my way and I had everything looked after, I'd just as soon not be here. On the planet, I mean."

Could happen elsewhere in Canada

Others in this town are trying to build something positive from their tragedy.

The group Concerned Walkerton Citizens is fundraising for clean water projects in Haiti.

And leader Bruce Davidson travels throughout Canada telling people not to take their drinking water for granted. 

"While the tragedy occurred here it could have really happened to many, many communities across this province or across this country, and that's simply unacceptable," said Davidson.

Water quality problems persist in other parts of the province. Many Ontario First Nations communities are under boil water advisories.

Many Walkerton residents hope Sunday's ceremony will help the town move forward while teaching the rest of Canada the perils of taking their water supply for granted.

"We had a real good friend who died," said Walkerton resident Eldon Yundt. "And when she died, she was in pain. This is a wake-up call to everybody. When it happened everybody thought, 'this is Canada; our water is pure.' I'm glad people have learned the importance of looking after the water."

With files from CBC's Mike Crawley