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Tainted water raises safety issues

As number of illnesses subsides, questions focus on why public officials withheld information.

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Dalton McGuinty, leader of the opposition Liberals in the provincial legislature, called for an emergency debate on the Walkerton situation. "We must take a hard look at what role provincial cutbacks and downloading have played in this tragedy."

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On a brief visit to Walkerton Friday, provincial Premier Mike Harris made generalized promises of help and stolidly bore the brunt of townspeople's anger and frustration. But he insisted, "There's been no downloading ... that can be pointed to" as the cause for breakdown in communications and authority at the water system. And although the provincial Ministry of the Environment has experienced a 40 percent cutback since the Tories came to power in 1995, there has been "not one person fewer in the Ministry of Environment on the investigative side," Mr. Harris said.

Many reports are surfacing, however, suggesting reasons for concern about rural water systems generally within the province. Erik Peters, the provincial auditor, said in broadcast interviews that in 1994 (under the previous New Democratic government) he had issued a report warning that many systems - serving about 10 percent of the population in Ontario - were testing water inadequately, treating it inadequately, and maintaining inadequate water-quality standards. In a followup report in 1996, under Harris's Tories, Mr. Peters found "there was improvement, but very slow."

Some observers see the intensive "factory farming" that goes on in Bruce County, where Walkerton is located, as a critical issue for rural water quality. The communities of rural Ontario "need to get a grip" on their management of cattle waste," one official says, in order to avoid water contamination.

Meanwhile, despite ample evidence of being poorly served by their public servants, the people of Walkerton are responding with a remarkable degree of calm. A public demonstration scheduled at the municipal offices Saturday afternoon was a bust, with only a handful of protesters showing up. Calls for compassion for Mr. Koebel, the utility manager, are frequently heard. "That man must be going through hell right now," one resident mused aloud.

The local hockey arena is often the soul of a small town in Canada, and now Walkerton's is serving as the focal point for distribution of bottled water. Trucks from around the province just started showing up and dropping off their pallets full of liters and half-liters. And people - some service-club members, some not - are helping to pass the water out. No one in particular seems to be in charge, but vans and station wagons and other cars have queued up neatly to pick up water, bleach, and toothbrushes. Their tires crunch across the gravel of the arena parking lot.

"My family wasn't sick, and so I felt I had to help," says Greg McLean, as he directs the line of cars at the arena. "I know five people have passed away," he says, "but certainly don't want Walkerton to die."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society