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."

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.

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."

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

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