Walkerton inquiry hears of poor training, ignored warnings

A judicial inquiry looking into how Walkerton's water turned poisonous has heard that drinking alcohol on the job was common, and that the water system's foreman had no formal training.

Frank Koebel said he started at the utilities commission 25 years ago when he was 17, working his way up to foreman.

He told the inquiry he learned on the job and that he never had the time to take any formal courses.

"We were always busy," he said. Koebel's brother, Stan, was the manager of the water system when E. coli bacteria contaminated Walkerton's drinking water.

The poisonous water killed seven people and sickened more than 2,000 others last May.

Heavy spring rains apparently washed farm animal waste, tainted with E. coli, into one of the town's wells.

Koebel also testified that there was always beer in an office fridge for staff. That changed in 1998 after he had two heart attacks and was treated for alcohol abuse.

Koebel said since May, he has been on medication for depression and has been seeing a counsellor. He's on compassionate leave from his job.

Earlier on Wednesday, the inquiry heard a taped telephone conversation between his brother, Stan, and Ontario's Environment Ministry.

Stan Koebel is heard playing down the possible danger to the water system. "We have a fair bit of construction and there is some concern," he says.

The environment officials asks him if he'd had any reports that the water was bad.

"We've had the odd one," Koebel answers.

The commission has heard that there were several reports, in April and May, that said Walkerton's water was bad.

Stan Koebel was scheduled to testify this week, but he's undergoing psychiatric tests because his lawyer says his client is in no condition to take the stand.

On Tuesday, the town's boil-water advisory that forced people to rely on bottled, boiled and bleached water was lifted after seven months.

More than $11 million has been spent on replacing the town's pipes, testing the system rigorously, and putting in a new filtration system.

While many people are relieved by the news, some say they will never drink the town's water again.