By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
Walkerton was memorable for me. I was there in the wake of the E.coli contamination of the drinking water that gripped the town in 2000 and left seven dead. I was there for the subsequent inquiry that lasted nine months, reporting on the tragedy for the Toronto Star. The trauma the community experienced made a lasting impression.
But in time, the urgency recedes. Legislative improvements are made, source-water protection is rolled out, there’s a feeling that it could never happen again. Except that it could – not necessarily in the same way, but as some new unintended consequence. As the Ford government ramps up the rhetoric against government regulation and red tape, memories of the Harris days resurface.
Here’s what Justice Dennis O’Connor wrote in his 2002 report:
“I am satisfied that the regulatory culture created by the government through the Red Tape Commission review process discouraged any proposals to make the notification protocol for adverse drinking water results legally binding on the operators of municipal water systems and private laboratories.
“On several occasions, concerns were expressed by officials in the Ministry of Health, as well as in the MOE (Ministry of the Environment), regarding failures to report adverse water results to local Medical Officers of Health in accordance with the ODWO (Ontario Drinking Water Objectives) protocol. Despite these concerns, the government did not enact a regulation to make notification mandatory until after the Walkerton tragedy.
“The evidence showed that the concept of a notification regulation would likely have been ‘a non-starter,’ given the government’s focus on minimizing regulation.”
This is part of what I wrote on the day the judge released his report.
None of the key players in the events leading to the fatal contamination of this town’s drinking water 19 months ago has been spared adverse comment in the report of the Walkerton commission.
But Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor reserved his bluntest criticism for the government of Ontario, portraying a bureaucracy that had failed to regulate and oversee and a political leadership intent on cost-cutting that turned a blind eye to risk.
“This could have been prevented,’’ O’Connor told a packed assembly hall in a brief address yesterday afternoon which concluded to a standing ovation from 500 residents that in turn brought a tear to the judge’s eye.
“I am satisfied that if the MOE had adequately fulfilled its regulatory and oversight role, the tragedy in Walkerton would have been prevented … or at least significantly reduced in scope,” O’Connor says.
The role of the notorious Koebel brothers – waterworks manager Stan and his foreman brother Frank – was key, he notes.
“Stan and Frank Koebel engaged in a host of improper and unsafe operating practices during the years leading up to the May 2000 tragedy, some of which had a direct impact on the outbreak.’’
But that doesn’t let the government off the hook, the judge says. “It is simply wrong to say, as the government argued at the inquiry, that Stan Koebel or the Walkerton PUC were solely responsible for the outbreak and they were the only ones who could have prevented it.”
While the 700-page report is overwhelmingly an account of failure, O’Connor commends the efforts, albeit unsuccessful, of some people to protect water safety. They include:
– A former member of Walkerton council – Mary Robinson-Ramsay – for the diligence with which she strove to bring the 1998 environment ministry inspection report’s “troubling findings’’ to the attention of other members of council.
– Chuck Le Ber of the health ministry’s public health branch, for his efforts to raise the alarm about the lack of notification requirements for private labs, resulting in a request from his minister Jim Wilson to environment minister Norm Sterling for a regulation.
The budget reductions had a significant impact, O’Connor finds, because they made it less likely that the ministry would identify both the need for continuous monitors at Well 5 and the improper operating procedures at the waterworks.
While the Koebel brothers knowingly engaged for years in a host of improper practices – failing to monitor, making false entries in daily logs and mis-stating locations of samples, ministry inspectors should have detected the improper practices and ensured that they were corrected, O’Connor says.
O’Connor faults members of the Walkerton public utilities commission who in 1998 failed to respond to an environment ministry inspection report that set out significant concerns about water quality and identified several operating deficiencies.
Jim Bolden as mayor in 1998 was a PUC commissioner, a position he held for almost 14 years, noted O’Connor but “he had almost no knowledge of water safety issues and relied entirely on Stan Koebel in this critical area.’’
“I am satisfied that the people of Walkerton had a right to expect more of Mr. Bolden,’’ said O’ Connor.
O’ Connor also found that Dave Thomson, elected mayor of Brockton in January 1999 following the amalgamation of Walkerton with two neighbouring townships also relied too heavily on Stan Koebel.
“Mayor Thomson should, however, have taken more steps to inform himself about the nature of the operation especially water safety issued, for which (as PUC commissioner) he had responsibility.”
One episode that I found to be a vivid illustration of what was happening within the provincial government in the Harris years involved environment ministry inspector Michelle Zillinger. In 1998, she identified problems in the operation of the Walkerton waterworks – not to their full extent – but enough to cause her concern.
She was ready to issue a legally binding order requiring the local Public Utilities Commission to rectify deficiencies she had found in testing and disinfecting drinking water. She was overruled by Phil Bye, her manager in the ministry’s Owen Sound office. Voluntary compliance was the way to go, he said.
In his report, O’Connor called the Zillinger episode a missed opportunity. The utility might have responded properly to such an order, and if it had continued to ignore the mandated requirement, an unannounced inspection by the ministry might have uncovered the more serious problems, he wrote.
But, as Colin Perkel tells it in his book, Well of Lies, “the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris, with its pro-business approach and antipathy towards red tape, had made it abundantly clear that aggressive enforcement and prosecutions would not be the order of the day. Besides, the government’s severe downsizing of the ministry had effectively hobbled its ability to police environmental violations.”
It seems there’s a cycle to these things. Lessons learned in the aftermath of tragedy are forgotten and we’re now galloping full-tilt down the sorry path of regulatory gaps, inadequate oversight and monitoring, and responsibilities downloaded to entities unwilling or unable to discharge them. Simplistic solutions and glib reassurances are rewarded. It’s all too chillingly familiar for those of us who remember Walkerton.