INDEPTH: INSIDE WALKERTON
Canada's worst-ever E. coli contamination
CBC News Online | Updated Dec. 20, 2004
"We have a terrible tragedy here."
With those words, then Ontario Premier Mike Harris waded into
the Walkerton, Ont., water crisis on Friday, May 26, 2000. He
addressed a crowd of reporters and residents in the normally
quiet town in Ontario's rural heartland a part of the
province that normally gears up for a flood of fun seekers at
this time of year.
Instead, Walkerton began the transition into the town "where
those kids died from E. coli." It's not what anyone wanted,
but it was the end result. Reporters from around North America
descended on the area, trying to get to the bottom of Canada's
worst-ever outbreak of E. coli contamination. Seven people
died from drinking contaminated water. Hundreds suffered from
the symptoms of the disease, not knowing if they too would
According to the local medical officer of health, it all
could have been prevented. Dr. Murray McQuigge stunned the
country with his revelation on CBC Radio on May 25, 2000 that
the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission knew there was a
problem with the water several days before they told the public.
The impact of discovering that the young and the old in
a small Ontario town were dying from drinking town water will
reverberate throughout Ontario and the country for years.
Premier Harris immediately blamed the former NDP government
for loosening water standards. Within a week he had announced
public inquiry that wound up laying part of the blame for
the Walkerton disaster on cutbacks ordered by the Harris government.
Koebel asks for privacy
The manager at the heart of the controversy, Stan Koebel,
was in charge of the Public Utilities Commission.
When the local medical officer of health, Dr. Murray McQuigge,
revealed that Walkerton had a problem with its water, he said
the PUC knew the water supply was contaminated days before
the public was informed.
At the time Koebel said he was shocked, and it was revealed
he was under the care of a doctor. He made one brief appearance
before the hordes of reporters, but his goal was to stay in
isolation. His friends insisted he would never knowingly put
people at risk.
Koebel's name came up many times as the inquiry into Walkerton's
water opened in the town in October, 2000, five months after
the trouble first came to light.
The inquiry was called to look into how the water was contaminated
with the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria.
It found that illnesses could have been prevented if Koebel
had monitored chlorine levels in the drinking water. It also
pointed to deregulation of water testing and cuts to the Environment
Ministry by the Ontario government as contributing factors.
Ontario addresses water safety
It didn't take long for a political battle to ensue. On
May 29, 2000, a clearly shaken Ontario Environment Minister
Dan Newman called a news conference to say changes would be
made to ensure that the province's water supply remained safe.
"If there is something positive that can ever come out of
an event like this, it is that changes be made to ensure that
it doesn't ever happen again," he said at the Ontario legislature.
The Ontario Tories lost the next election to the Liberals,
who campaigned, in part, on providing safer drinking water.
A 60-page study released in November 2001 concluded that
the Walkerton water tragedy cost at least $64.5 million and
an estimated $155 million, if human suffering was factored
in. Each household in the town of 5,000 spent about $4,000
on average as a result of the contamination, for a total of
$6.9 million. The study weighed in the costs and benefits
of providing safe drinking water.
The study also concluded that real estate values in Walkerton
fell a total of $1.1-million as a result of the contamination
of the water supply. Costs for the town's businesses, for
items such as bottled water or disinfecting and replacing
equipment, are estimated at $651,422.
Lost revenues from May 1, 2000, to April 30, 2001, were
estimated at $2.7 million. The study estimates that it cost
more than $9 million to fix the town's water system, while
the Ontario government spent about $3.5 million on legal fees
and another $1.5 million to supply clean water to institutions.
On March 25, 2003 Stan Koebel and his brother Frank were
charged with public nuisance, uttering and forgery and breach
of public duty. Frank Koebel was the foreman of the town Public
Utilities Commission. On November 30, 2004, the pleaded guilty.
Three weeks later, Stan Koebel was sentenced to a year in
jail. Frank Koebel was sentenced to nine months house arrest.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Durno took more than two
hours to read out and explain his ruling. He stressed there was never
any intent on the part of the Koebels to harm anyone, but found them
negligent in discharging their duties.