UPDATE - Walkerton, Ont. E Coli

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Wed Jun 7, 9:01 am

Number of sick in Walkerton doubles

Walkerton's regional medical officer of health says water contaminated with E. coli has made more than 2,000 people sick  twice as many as originally reported and half the town's population.

Dr. Murray McQuigge says many people continue to arrive at Walkerton's hospital with bloody diarrhea and other symptoms of E. coli infection.

The E. coli outbreak has killed at least seven people since mid-May.

McQuigge also says investigators have narrowed the cause of the bacterial outbreak to seven possible sources. Those include several livestock farms that are uphill from two of the town's wells.

Some people think torrential rains on May 12 flooded animal waste into Walkerton's water supply.

Experts have tested calves in several herds in the Walkerton area. They've found the same strain of E. coli bacteria that contaminated the water system.

It will be about another six weeks before the water in Walkerton is safe to drink.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), June 07, 2000


Ontario ignored water alert Memo warned of Walkerton-type disaster; critic says lives could have been saved

SUSAN BOURETTE The Globe and Mail; With a report from Richard Mackie Thursday, June 8, 2000

Toronto -- Ontario's Environment Ministry warned as early as 1997 that shutting down its water-testing labs could lead to the kind of water disaster that has hit Walkerton, Ont., and killed at least seven people, internal government documents show.

The government of Premier Mike Harris, however, ignored Environment Ministry proposals that were submitted to senior officials in January, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail yesterday that outline the changes.

"Not monitoring drinking-water quality is a serious concern for the ministry in view of its mandate to protect public health," the draft document prepared by the ministry's water-policy branch states.

Mr. Harris has refused to acknowledge that closing government labs and privatizing water-testing services may have contributed to the deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Walkerton.

Yesterday, the Premier offered an apology for suggesting earlier this week that municipal officials in Walkerton had been lax in not upgrading their water system. In fact, they spent more than $420,000 on upgrades approved prior to 1997.

"Clearly, my staff had given me wrong information on federal- provincial infrastructure," he told reporters at Queen's Park. "I just apologize to you and to the people of Ontario and, of course, to Walkerton, for any confusion over that."

The proposed revisions to Ontario Drinking Water Objectives -- the main government policy document overseeing the province's drinking water -- pointed specifically to concerns over the shifting of treatment costs to municipalities and problems relating to the fact that some smaller municipalities weren't keeping tabs on the quality of their drinking water.

It also outlined worries that the Harris government's move to privatize government labs -- which had once tested drinking water across the province -- meant that there were no procedures in place to make certain the medical officer of health was informed if harmful bacteria were detected.

The document states that the ministry alerted the government in 1997 that closing its water-testing operations was dangerous to public health. Ministry spokesman John Steele said yesterday that letters were sent to all private labs in 1995 informing them of their duties to report adverse lab results directly to the medical officer of health. He also said that since 1997, all municipalities not properly testing their water were brought into compliance.

But environmentalists said yesterday that the government knew long ago that problems such as those that erupted in Walkerton last month were looming.

"This document foreshadows the events that are alleged to have happened in Walkerton," said Mark Winfield, research director of the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy.

Most important, he said, is the document's discussion of notification procedures.

"Restructuring of public sector laboratory services (which have resulted in a move to private sector laboratory testing of drinking water), necessitate a review of the protocol for notification of the Medical Officer of Health on discovery of adverse drinking water quality," the document states.

"Due to provincial government downsizing and restructuring, from mid- 1996 onwards, Ministry labs no longer undertake drinking water analyses for municipalities. the result of this change is that the District Manager would not be the first to know of any adverse results as now there is no reporting link through the Ministry's labs."

Doug Chapman, a lawyer and investigator with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, said lives could have been saved if the government had acted on that document. "People in high positions knew that there were problems. Mike Harris should take some responsibility for this instead of blaming everyone else. This document clearly indicates that the government knew that the reporting requirements weren't safe."

In 1996, the Tories privatized government labs that once conducted an average of 400,000 drinking-water tests a year. Government labs had been required to inform both the ministry and the medical officer of health immediately if there were problems with drinking water.

But with no direct link between labs and the government, a report that the drinking water was contaminated, received by the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission on May 18, sat in the PUC offices for days as hundreds of people were suffering with bloody diarrhea and other symptoms, including kidney failure, while the medical officer of health searched for a cause.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 08, 2000.

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