Walkerton Tragedy

The Walkerton Tragedy is a series of events that led up to and accompanied the contamination of the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, by E. coli bacteria in May 2000.


Walkerton is a community in Ontario. The water supply for the town of Walkerton was operated by the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission (WPUC), under the supervision of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. Stan Koebel was manager of the WPUC and Frank Koebel was water foreman. Neither had any formal training in their position, retaining their jobs through three decades of on-the-job experience. The water supply became contaminated with the highly dangerous O157:H7 strain of bacteria, from farm runoff into an adjacent well that was known for years to be vulnerable to contamination.

Starting May 15, 2000, many residents of the town of about 5,000 began to simultaneously experience bloody diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and other symptoms of E. coli infection. For days the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission insisted the water supply was "OK" despite being in possession of laboratory tests that showed evidence of contamination. On May 21, an escalation in the number of patients with similar symptoms finally spurred the region's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Murray McQuigge, to issue a boil water advisory warning residents not to drink the water despite the assurances of the manager of the WPUC that nothing was wrong with the water.

At least seven people died directly from drinking the E. coli contaminated water, who might have been saved if the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission had admitted to contaminated water sooner, and about 2,500 became ill.

During the time of the tragedy, both Stan and Frank Koebel denied any wrongdoing and firmly held that the water at Walkerton was safe to drink. However, as the tragedy grew in severity the two were eventually part of the criminal investigation into the tragedy, and, as a result, both would eventually plead guilty to a charge of common nuisance through a plea bargain. In their plea, they admitted to falsifying reports.[1]

They were both formally sentenced on December 21, 2004, with Stan receiving a year in jail and Frank nine months of house arrest. Reaction to their sentencing was mixed.


The Ontario Clean Water Agency was put in charge of the cleanup of Walkerton's water system.

An inquiry, known as the Walkerton Commission led by Court of Appeal for Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O'Connor, reported in 2002. Part 1[2] was released in January 2002. It estimated that the Walkerton water tragedy cost a minimum of $64.5-155 million CAD and laid blame at the doors of the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, as well as the Ontario government.

From the report:

For years, the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission operators engaged in a host of improper operating practices, including failing to use adequate doses of chlorine, failing to monitor chlorine residuals daily, making false entries about residuals in daily operating records, and misstating the locations at which microbiological samples were taken. The operators knew that these practices were unacceptable and contrary to Ministry of Environment guidelines and directives.

The Ontario government, headed by Premier Mike Harris, was blamed for not regulating water quality and failing to enforce the guidelines that had been in place.

Part 2[3] of the report made many recommendations for improving the quality of water and public health in Ontario. All of its recommendations have been accepted by succeeding governments of the province. The recommendations have also influenced provincial policies across Canada.

Key recommendations touched on source water protection as part of a comprehensive multi-barrier approach, the training and certification of operators, a quality management system for water suppliers, and more competent enforcement. In Ontario, these requirements have been incorporated into new legislation.

Criticism of the Harris government

The Walkerton tragedy sparked severe criticism of Mike Harris' provincial government for its role in laying the groundwork for the tragedy.

In a widely distributed article, Ulli Diemer, a Walkerton-area landowner, argued that "This was no unforeseen accident. It was the predictable - and predicted - result of deliberate policy decisions which gravely compromised the safety of Ontario's drinking water."[4]

Diemer cites a series of actions and deliberate inactions on the part of the Harris government which set the stage for the tragedy:

* Massive cutbacks to the Ministry of the Environment implemented as soon as the Harris government took office. 42% of the Ministry's budget was cut, 900 of 2400 stuff were laid off, and agencies set up to deal with environmental problems were dismantled. As a result, Ministry staff were no longer able to carry out inspections or enforce legislation on a consistent basis.[5]

* Under the "Water and Sewage Services Improvement Act" the province's water testing labs were shut down, provincially owned water and sewage plants were 'downloaded' to municipalities without the resources to run them safely, and funding for municipal water utilities was eliminated.[6]

* The elimination of the provincial Drinking Water Surveillance Program, under which the Ministry of the Environment had monitored drinking water across the province.[7]

* Reports warning of the dangers of the government's actions were ignored, including warnings from the Provincial Ombudsman, the Provincial Auditor, the International Joint Commission, the Environmental Commissioner for Ontario, the Ontario Medical Officer of Health, and the Ministry of the Environment's own Water Policy Branch.[8]

* Despite a report from Health Canada warning that the cattle farming districts of southwestern Ontario, where Walkerton is located, are at risk of having their drinking water contaminated by e. coli, the Harris government eliminated e. coli testing.[9]

* The last provincial inspection of the Walkerton water system, in 1998, shows that there are ongoing problems with the system, including the detection of e. coli in the system on previous occasions. The ministry recommends urgent changes, but fails to follow up to see if they have been carried out.[10]

* Between January and April of 2000, the lab which tests Walkerton's water repeatedly detects coliform bacteria - an indication that surface water is getting into the water supply. The lab notifies the Ministry of the Environment about its findings on five separate occasions. The Ministry phones the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission, is assured the problems are being fixed, and lets it go at that. The Ministry fails to inform the Medical Officer of Health, as by law it is required to do.[11]

* According to Diemer, "The Walkerton story is the story of how systems which were established to protect public health were deliberately dismantled by a government driven by a fanatical hatred of the public sector. In the name of eliminating "environmental red tape," a water protection system designed with multiple safeguards to protect against a failure at any one point or by any one person was undermined until it could no longer function, despite the clearest possible warnings of the foreseeable consequences."[12]


  1. ^ CBC News: Inside Walkerton Reference for the preceding three paragraphs: CBC News in Depth: Inside Walkerton
  2. ^ [2] The Walkerton Report, Part One, described events in the community and a series of failures, both human and systemic, that led to contamination of the water supply. The report made recommendations based on the circumstances of the tragedy.
  3. ^ [3] The Walkerton Report, Part Two, discussed water safety across the province and the steps needed to prevent similar tragedies. It made ninety-three recommendations.
  4. ^ [4] Ulli Diemer: Contamination: The Poisonous Legacy of Ontario's Environmental Cutbacks.
  5. ^ [5] Diemer: Contamination.
  6. ^ [6] Diemer: Contamination.
  7. ^ [7] Diemer: Contamination.
  8. ^ [8] Diemer: Contamination.
  9. ^ [9] Diemer: Contamination.
  10. ^ [10] Diemer: Contamination.
  11. ^ [11] Diemer: Contamination.
  12. ^ [12] Diemer: Contamination.

[edit] Resources

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Conservative Party  –  Contaminants  –  Cutbacks  –  Deregulation  –  Drinking Water  –  Drinking Water Protection  –  E.coli  –  Environment and Agriculture  –  Environment and Health  –  Environmental Emergencies  –  Environmental Impact: Animal Industry  –  Environmental Legislation  –  Environmental Monitoring  –  Environmental Protection  –  Neoconservatism  –  Ontario Government  –  Public Health  –  Progressive Conservative Party  –  Public Safety  –  Walkerton, Ontario  –  Walkerton Water Contamination  –  Water: Environmental Issues  –  Water Quality Management  –  Water Safety

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