Tainted water raises safety issues
As number of illnesses subsides, questions focus on why public officials withheld information.
"Let's Get It Fixed and Get Back to Normal."Skip to next paragraph
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This is the plea on the marquee at the Hartley House hotel here in this Ontario farming town, site of one of the worst outbreaks ever of E. coli infection in North America.
It's a case likely to sear two lessons into public consciousness:
*The need for officials in even the smallest of communities to share immediately any information about potential public health problems.
*The need for governments to take seriously the challenges of water quality in agricultural areas, as factory farming and other forms of rural development strive for some peaceful coexistence.
Public health officials express hope that the situation has, as one nurse put it, "stabled off," with the number of new cases reported daily down to 30 on Sunday from 56 on Friday. "My sense is the worst is over, certainly," says Dianne Waram, acting chief executive at the local hospital. But five people have died and several remain in critical condition. Nearly 1,000 - about a fifth of Walkerton's population - have fallen ill.
The source of the contamination is thought to be runoff from nearby cattle feedlots after a torrential rainstorm May 12.
What has electrified this close-knit community has been the statement Wednesday by Dr. Murray McQuigge, the regional medical officer of health, that officials of the locally owned municipal water system not only withheld from the public for days information on lab tests indicating water contamination, but lied to health officials three times in response to point-blank questions whether the water system was safe and secure. "What has happened and is happening is not a mystery. This could have been prevented," Dr. McQuigge said.
While utility officials stonewalled, health officials wasted time investigating other possible causes of the outbreak. The Ontario Provincial Police are investigating the questions of who knew what when.
Stanley Koebel, the utility manager who allegedly received the damning lab report by fax May 18 and then inexplicably failed to pass the information along, either to his superiors or to the public, has not been seen for days. He has been variously reported hospitalized, or working with officials to correct the problem. The Ontario Clean Water Agency meanwhile has directly taken over the running of the Walkerton system. A "boil water" order remains in effect, however, and officials say they are still several days away from determining the exact cause of the contamination.
A number of lawsuits have already been filed, one a class action for $1 billion (Canadian; US$665 million); others are expected.
With police and other officials close to the situation in Walkerton retreating in silence behind the shield of "ongoing investigation," the larger discussion has focused on the "downloading" of services from the province to local authorities by the province's less-is-more Conservative government.