Walkerton Inquiry: Sterling grilled about responsibility

Norm Sterling told the Walkerton inquiry he will take responsibility for his policies, if the judicial probe finds they contributed to last year's deadly E.coli outbreak.

Sterling was Environment Minister and oversaw major cutbacks between 1996 and 1999. At the inquiry on Wednesday, he was grilled about why he didn't close a crucial gap in Ontario's drinking water policies.

The issue had to do with the closure of Ontario's public water testing labs in 1996. It was done with just two months' notice. Local water utilities scrambled to find private labs to do microbiological tests. Through the transition, the government didn't update or review what should be done if private labs found problems in drinking water.

In 1997 the health minister, Jim Wilson, wrote to then-environment minister Norm Sterling, asking for a regulation to force the labs to alert health officials.

Sterling testified Wednesday he didn't see the letter, and hadn't even read the existing, voluntary guidelines. He wrote back to the health minister saying there would be no new rules.

"I was satisfied we were doing two things. We were giving the minister of health the assurance he was looking for and were also giving him a second thing, that was that we were going to look at this matter further."

In Walkerton last year, beyond the floods, a broken chlorinator, and the failures of the water manager, the private lab that found E.coli didn't warn provincial officials. It took health authorities six extra days to figure out what was making so many people sick.

Sterling told the Walkerton inquiry Wednesday morning he knew massive staff cuts posed risks, but was assured the risks were manageable.

Inquiry lawyer Paul Cavaluzzo asked Sterling who should be held responsible if the inquiry finds that government cutbacks contributed to the deadly E.coli contamination.

"I was minister of environment for three years and I consider myself, as a minister of environment, accountable to the public for everything that occurred in the ministry over that period of time," replied Sterling.

On Tuesday, Sterling's predecessor Brenda Elliott said her entire government team, as well as the public service, should share responsibility.

The inquiry has heard that cutbacks between 1995 and 1999 reduced environmental inspections, investigations and enforcement across Ontario.