Dec 28, 2000

Testimony Says Walkerton Worker Knew of <I>E. Coli</I> Contamination

Stan Koebel, the man in charge of Walkerton, Canada's, drinking water at the time of the E. coli outbreak this year, knew of the E. coli contamination for days and failed to report it to authorities.

Phil Bye, a district supervisor for the Environment Ministry, testified that Koebel told him on Tuesday, May 23 that he had known of the contamination from a faxed lab report the previous Thursday. Of course, by the time health officials knew about the contamination, 2,000 people had fallen ill including seven fatally.

Koebel admitted he hadn't alerted either health or ministry officials Bye reported. Koebel has yet to testify, but has explained that he was doing what he always did when the water turned bad: flush the system and increase chlorination.

In Walkerton's case, with three operating wells and one on standby, meeting minimum testing objectives would mean a bill of about $20,000 a year.

The town, which already had a history of water quality problems, was one of the smaller municipalities that lost its government testing lab and was forced to tap the private market.

Documents presented at the hearing show dozens of municipalities weren't meeting the minimum sampling guidelines and Bye was clearly worried.

In July 1997, he wrote to ministry about the need for regulations that would allow a crackdown on municipalities that were repeatedly, perhaps deliberately, violating water-testing guidelines.

It was clear the province's drinking water objectives–guidelines that were not mandatory–had become outdated, Bye told the inquiry.

When ministry labs did the testing, problems with water were relayed to the medical officer of health responsible for the area. But the move to private labs left a void.

"It seemed to make sense to me that there should be a (reporting) requirement because of the significance of an E. coli event and the need to get that information to the purveyor of the water as quickly as possible," Bye said.

In August, the Environment Minister Dan Newman implemented mandatory reporting and testing requirements.

The judicial inquiry under Justice Dennis O'Connor continues.

(Source: Edmonton Journal)

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