Disaster leaves people wary of water

Stacey Diemert, of Walkerton, and her two children Victoria, 11, and Madison, 2, with a water cooler jug. The family no longer drinks Walkerton tap water. BILL WALKER/The Sun Times

BILL WALKER
Sun Times staff
WALKERTON — Cassandra Diemert has never simply gone to her tap and turned it on for a drink of water.
The nine-year-old Walkerton resident never will if her mom Stacey has anything to say about it.
In her mind, Cassandra has already suffered enough because of Walkerton’s water. The elementary school student was not even born in 2000 when E. coli bacteria contaminated the town’s water system, killing seven people and sickening thousands more.
“I’ve had a glass or two out of the tap but we buy bottled water for the kids,” Stacey Diemert said one sunny spring day as she and 11-year-old daughter Victoria loaded a water-cooler jug into the family van.
“We won’t go through that again. For my kids’ safety and their health, I’ll buy water. I know it’s expensive in the long run, but it’s worth it. I think people are drinking a lot more bottled water. It’s for the piece of mind.”
Cassandra Diemert isn’t the only Walkerton resident who hasn’t had a glass of tap water since 2000.

The move to bottled water began when residents were forbidden to drink from their taps while water lines were being flushed of contaminants in 2000. It’s a habit that’s been supported by the bottled water industry which saw its share of the beverage market rise from 5% in 2000 to 9.1% in 2006, according to an Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada report.
Bottled water’s share of annual grocery sales grew 65% from 2003 to 2006, according to that same report.
Not surprisingly the bottled water industry is reluctant to discuss Walkerton and the financial impact that it had on sales.
Repeated calls to the Canadian Bottled Water Association and the International Council of Bottled Water Associations went unanswered.
But University of Waterloo civil and environmental engineering professor Dr. Peter Huck noted that “there is no doubt that the Walkerton incident has been a contributing factor — but not the only factor — in the increased consumption of bottled water. It is perceived by consumers to be safer.”
This perception gave the bottled water industry a boost.
The Walkerton Water and Wellness Centre opened shortly after the town’s water problems, not in an attempt to capitalize on peoples fears, employees say, but simply to fill a demand that was growing in town.
“A lot of us got used to it because we were given water bottles and the water coolers in order to get over the contamination,” said longtime centre employee Jan Radford.
“We’re used to purified (water) now and we don’t like the taste of the chlorine and the chemicals that’s added to it now.”
It’s too broad of a generalization to say that everyone in Walkerton drinks bottled water.
There’s also been an increase in under-the-counter filtration systems, according to Radford.
“But not everyone has a filter system and not everyone has a water bottle or a Brita in their fridge,” she noted. “People do drink the water here. It’s just that people are more conscious of where our water is coming from.”
Despite the safety of Walkerton’s water, many people still view bottled water as a safer alternative, even though the town “certainly has very safe water,” Huck said.
People coming to Walkerton often shy away from tap water. That’s certainly true for sports teams.
The Walkerton water tragedy happened near the end of the Ontario high school sports season in 2000.
Teams coming into Walkerton the following season made a point of bringing their own water. It’s a practice that’s still taking place today.
“Rarely do teams pull in and fill up their water bottles,” said Sacred Heart Crusaders girls rugby coach Bill King.
“They seem to want to bring their own water. We’ve brought in coolers with water from outside (of Walkerton) and they still won’t drink it. They seem to feel safer with bottled water and they still are like that today, even though we probably have the safest water in Canada.”
It’s safe because of the membrane filtration system that was installed by the municipality and province, a system that likely never would have been installed if not for the water tragedy, according to Huck.
But word of mouth and long memories trump a high-tech filtration system.
Walkerton, to many people around the world, means one thing — bad water.
Simply Google “Walkerton” and “Water” if you doubt this. Those two words spawn almost 1.7 million search results.
“We got known across Ontario as the town that was infected by this water problem,” said King. “The first thing they say is, ‘Oh, that’s where you had the water problem.”
But it wasn’t just people in Walkerton who were affected by the water in 2000.
Diemert and her family were Cargill residents in 2000 but were in the Bruce County town almost every day for business and to shop.
Stacey was pregnant with Cassandra when the expectant mother became ill due to the contaminated water. Cassandra later developed diabetes at age 2 and her doctors contributed the illness to her exposure — through Stacey — to Walkerton’s contaminated water.
“I got really ill and (the doctors) felt she got it too at birth,” said Diemert, who was unsuccessful in her bid to get compensation for her daughter’s illness.
“It (diabetes) hit her when she was two and I almost lost her. They weren’t able to prove it but when I got her tested, the doctors said part of it was because of the water and because I was so sick from it.”
Diemert’s husband Rick Smith also got sick during the contamination and like many people, could not work.
His inability to work and the drop in business eventually led to the couple selling their duct cleaning business.
“It got really slow and in a year or two after that we got rid of it,” said Diemert, who like many residents is amazed that it all took place 10 years ago.
“It seems like it was just like yesterday that everyone was sick.”
For residents in Walkerton, the water tragedy lives in their mind every day.
Even if they weren’t sick, they undoubtedly knew someone who was.
“I think it’s something that will live with you for the rest of your life,” said King. “Everyone knows where they were that (long weekend in May 2000) and what they did. It’s our JFK moment.”

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