Walkerton E. coli inquiry begins

Five months after the deadliest outbreak of E. coli in Canadian history, an independent judicial inquiry has begun into a tragedy that scarred a town and scared a nation.

The inquiry, led by an Ontario judge, will look into how a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria infected Walkerton's water supply killing seven people and making more than 2,000 others ill.

People in the town still can't drink from their taps. They use bottled water, and boil water for cooking and bathing.

"It's been very difficult," says resident Pam Schlosser. "There's a lot of uncertainty and questions."

A preliminary report concluded that heavy rains washed animal waste tainted with E. coli into the town's water supply.

Separate investigations into the outbreak are being conducted by the police, the Ontario government and the coroner. But they're on hold until the public inquiry wraps up early next year.

The inquiry's lawyer has promised that the inquest will be a thorough investigation.

"We will be assessing the conduct of not only people, but also government institutions. And at the end of the day, the commission will be making findings," says Paul Cavalluzzo, commission counsel.

The inquiry will hear from people who got sick from the E. coli, as well as from those accused of not notifying authorities about the contamination earlier.

Stan Koebel, who was in charge of the town's water system last spring, has never spoken publicly about the tragedy. He will appear at the inquiry.

"He has been devastated with the loss of lives and suggestions that he or anyone else is to blame," says Bill Trudel, Koebel's lawyer.

There will also be questions about what role the Conservative government's policies played in the outbreak.

Critics argue that budget cuts by the provincial Tories fatally compromised standards. Premier Mike Harris, in turn, says his government inherited a mess from the NDP.

The inquiry will look at ways to prevent a similar tragedy in communities across the country.

"We just think of Canada as the Great White North, the land of pristine waters. And it's a bit of a shock to learn we're not as good stewards as we might have been," says Harry Swain, chair of the advisory panel.

Ontario brought in new water regulations shortly after the E. coli outbreak. Environment Minister Dan Newman says the government is committed to the recommendations that will come from the inquiry.

"We take this matter very seriously," Newman says. "We want to wait for this report."

No one knows when the inquiry's findings will be released. The hearings alone are expected to continue until January.