Canada

Walkerton council scraps water commission

Councillors have voted to dissolve the public utilities commission in Walkerton. That's the body that managed the town's drinking water during a deadly bacterial outbreak.

Five councillors voted to break up the commission at a meeting Monday night; one councillor abstained.

The municipality of Brockton, which includes the town of Walkerton, says the Ontario Clean Water Agency will continue to operate its water system.

The agency took over the town's water supply in May. That's when a lethal strain of E. coli bacteria slipped into the drinking water, killing seven people and sickening 2,000 others.

The council postponed voting on a severance package worth $98,000 for Stan Koebel, the former head of the commission, until a public inquiry into the disaster is over.

Doctor defends actions

A key witness appeared at the inquiry Monday. Dr. Murray McQuigge, the regional medical officer of health, first raised the alarm in the tainted-water disaster.

A few days after people began falling ill, McQuigge's office issued a boil-water alert. At the time, the public utilities commission was still saying the water was fine.

"We went right to the horse's mouth and said how's your water?" McQuigge testified.

He said the tragedy could probably have been avoided if Koebel, the water manager, had not kept secret critical information about lab tests.

Combative testimony on McQuigge's first day

McQuigge faced pointed questions about whether he could have done more to prevent the outbreak.

Inquiry counsel Paul Cavalluzzo asked McQuigge why he didn't invoke emergency procedures. A testy McQuigge said that was something the mayor should have done.

"When you're a mayor, you have responsibilities," McQuigge said on his first day as an inquiry witness. "I can't be doing everything for everybody."

He also denied that having information on a 10-year-old E. coli outbreak in the U.S. would have better prepared his staff.

And he rejected suggestions that divulging details of a 1998 report outlining shoddy water practices in Walkerton would have helped his unit track down the source of the bacteria faster.

McQuigge lost his composure briefly when he recalled phoning parents to warn them their sick children might suffer liver failure.

Public utility blamed for tragedy

Last spring, McQuigge accused the town's public utility and its manager, Stan Koebel, of making fatal mistakes.

Koebel has admitted to a litany of sloppy practices and deception, but maintained that until the end he still felt the water quality was fine.

At first, McQuigge was hailed as a hero. But his unit's actions later came under scrutiny after a health worker admitted officials were worried they would come under fire for not acting quickly enough.

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