Water tragedy was 10 years ago

Click here to watch the slideshow, with photography by Willy Waterton and James Masters, music from piper Scott Henderson, produced by Bill Henry

Sun Times staff
Justice Dennis O’Connor’s first report on the events of May, 2000 drew together decades of events and oversights that played parts in the deadly outbreak.
He found a heavy rain beginning May 8 washed E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni from a nearby farm into the town’s Well 5, which along with Well 6 and Well 7, provided the town’s drinking water at the time. He found Well 5 to be the source of contamination that killed seven and made about 3,000 people ill, some permanently.
The following timeline is based on Part 1 of the Report of the Walkerton Inquiry.
Walkerton’s Well 5 is drilled shallow in fractured bedrock. It is identified as vulnerable to surface contamination, but no special requirements are made to ensure the water is chlorinated and tested properly.
Ministry of the Environment inspects Well 5 in 1991, 1995 and 1998, but it is not assessed to see if it is directly affected by surface water. Problems with testing and chlorination are identified, but the ministry relies on the Walkerton PUC to fix them without ordering it to do so.
MOE budget cuts start in 1992 and are stepped up after the election of 1995.

Drinking water lab tests are privatized in 1996 without making it necessary for those doing the tests to inform the MOE or local health officials of trouble.
May 8-13, 2000
Heavy rains begin and flooding follows. E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni enter Walkerton’s Well 5 from a nearby farm.
The well is the primary source of drinking water for the system in this period.
Chlorine residual measurements, which in part indicate if the chlorine’s disinfectant capacity is being overwhelmed, are not taken at the well.
It has been common practice at the PUC to make fictitious entries for chlorine residuals. Exposure to pathogens begins for people drinking the town’s water.
May 15, 2000
Water samples are taken by a PUC worker, but they are mislabelled. Samples also taken at a watermain construction site. PUC manager Stan Koebel returns to Walkerton after being away for more than a week and learns the town’s Well 7 has been operating without a chlorinator. He allows it to continue working. Well 5 is turned off, but the contaminated water has entered the system.
May 17, 2000
Private lab informs Koebel water samples taken May 15 are contaminated with E. coli, but lab doesn’t inform the MOE office in Owen Sound or the local health unit.
May 18, 2000
Signs of illness are noted when two children with bloody diarrhea are admitted to hospital in Owen Sound. Many more children are kept home from school and the PUC starts getting calls asking if something is wrong with the water.
May 19, 2000
More students are kept home from school and signs of illness are noticed by more people.
In Owen Sound, pediatrician Dr. Kristen Hallett contacts the health unit with suspicions the two children in hospital in the city have E. coli O157:H7 and notes other people in Walkerton show signs of illness.
Health unit officials phone Stan Koebel and ask if there is a problem with the water. He does not tell them of the adverse lab results, or that Well 7 had been operating without a chlorinator, which is unacceptable. After speaking with the health unit staff, Koebel begins flushing and superchlorinating the system.
“I am satisfied that Mr. Koebel was concerned during the weekend about people becoming ill from the water and he did not know that E. coli could be fatal,” O’Connor wrote.
May 20, 2000
E. coli is found in a preliminary test of one of the children at the Owen Sound hospital, prompting more calls from the health unit to Koebel. Again he doesn’t reveal what he knows about the May 15 lab tests. The health unit assures callers water isn’t the culprit.
A PUC worker makes an anonymous call to an MOE emergency number and says Walkerton water samples have failed lab tests.
May 21, 2000
E. coli O157:H7 is confirmed in tests at the Owen Sound hospital.
Health unit issues a boil water advisory at 1:30 p.m. and takes its own water samples in Walkerton.
There is rapid increase in the number of people affected by the contamination and Walkerton’s hospital is flooded with patients and calls.
The first child is airlifted to London.
May 22, 2000
First person dies. E. coli O157:H7 listed as contributing factor.
The MOE begins its own investigation of the water system at the request of the health unit. It isn’t until the MOE requests documents that Stan Koebel produces a fax sent to him by the lab May 17. He provides daily operating sheets for Well 5 and Well 6, and instructs his brother Frank to alter the documents for Well 7.
May 23, 2000
Second person dies. E. coli O157:H7 listed as cause.
Stan Koebel provides MOE with altered daily operating sheets for Well 7.
The health unit gets back test results showing E. coli is in the town’s water system. When informed, Koebel tells the health unit about the samples from May 15.
May 24, 2000
Two more people die. E. coli O157:H7 listed as cause in both cases.
Many others are transferred to London.
May 29, 2000
Fifth person dies. Campylobacter jejuni listed as contributing factor.
May 30, 2000
Sixth death. E. coli O157:H7 listed as cause.
July 25, 2000
Last death officially associated with outbreak. Campylobacter jejuni listed as a contributing factor.



Filed under News feature

9 responses to “Water tragedy was 10 years ago

  1. glenn miller

    This Tragedy would have not happened if the Walkerton citizens had been concerned what was happening around them, but as the saying goes ” Citizens pay their taxes, and then they abdicate. They have lost their skills as citizens; they have contracted them out to public employees.”When this happens (and it did) “when the cat’s away the mice will play”,they (citizens) start blaming everybody, but themselves, for endangering their lives, the irony of this is, they’re living as before.

    • glenn miller

      Well, after all that excitement and screaming how they’ve been victims, everybody has gone back to sleeping again and are unconcerned about “now” down sizing of their hospital, until something stings them in the butt, then they’ll be screaming again, being a victim again and being the fault of others,not themselves.

    • Rose Partridge

      Your kidding right? You mean those guys get to make six figures a year, tax citizens for their privledges up the ying yang and still we have to monitor their responsibilities personally? Somebody pay you to write that???

  2. Maureen Reilly

    Drinking contaminated water has left long term health consequences for Walkerton residents. Even people who didn’t have symptoms during the outbreak may have reduced kidney functioning, hypertension, or irritable bowel syndrome.
    Residents should be encouraged to seek medical advice to see if they experience these consequences.
    The government dropped the ball when it comes to protecting public health.
    Walkerton residents need understanding, encouragement, and good health care.

  3. Diane

    I was one of the first to experience the bloody diahhrea and cramping and was under the care of a gastroenterologist during the Walkerton Water Crisis. I lived on the outskirts of town but had 3 jobs in Walkerton and ate at a local restaurant there. I moved from the area in 2003 but continued to be tested yearly for the study that was done and continue to have IBS to this day. I will never forget the fear we experienced having to wait out the incubation period to see if we were going to die from the water. I will always remember the sound of the helicopters carrying children away. I wrote Walkerton This Month about the courageous, inventive, creative folk who took the “small” out of small town and I was proud to live amongst them.

  4. I just watched a program about the Walkerton water crisis on Investigative Discovery channel. When I heard about the corrupt acts by Stan and Frank Koebel and their complicity in the spread of deadly water, I was sure they would both be in prison for years. It’s only been maybe 10 minutes since the program ended, but I can tell you that I was SHOCKED at how light sentences these two men received. They are directly responsible for the illnesses of so many and the deaths from Walkerton. People need to know that the public utilities are safe and these guys simply LIED!!! In the meantime more people had consumed the toxic water. I am an American who lives in Belgium and am always frustrated by how lax and weak punishment is in the courts. I didn’t realize this was the same situation in Canada (or at least this particular court that heard the case of the Koebel brothers criminal acts, an epic betrayal of the public trust). Really I am still shocked.

    I think “justice” is so often a total joke. It just seems so evident to me that the punishment should fit the crime. The essence of any public job is that the people on the job are there to protect the people whose lives are dependent upon. Lying to public health officials? Not reacting when told they had to. Such malfeasance should never be excused. So simple is it!

    Anyway, I am just posting because I was so dumbfounded by the court decision.

    Let’s hope that highly qualified and truthful public managers and workers remember always that they hold the responsibility of protecting the public trust.

  5. trisha andrews chabot

    i lived in the walkerton area from 1988-1994 and wonder how much of my health issues could be attributed to the water that i drank well living in the area, and i am shocked that it was allowed to get as far as it had and that so many innocent people had to die just for the sake of saving money or covering up someones screw ups.

  6. Ellen Donnelly

    As a Walkerton Survivor I must comment on the issue today almost 13 years later .
    I’m in constant pain 24/7 I recieve Nerve Blocks weekly due to my Fibromyalgia I’ve been diagnosed with Barrets Esophagus PTSD irritable bowel panic attacks . I’ve lost all my Education as I’m now on a permanent Disability with CPP . It took a 4 year fight for my Disability . I’m by no means comfortable with my health or my lack of income . Stan and Fred Kobel received $84,000 I’m below the poverty level . That’s injustice at its finest . I’ve now recently been told I’m full of arthritis , so I can legally re- open my lawsuit . You could never pay me enough for my pain , loss of playing with my Grandchildren , holding them in my arms without sitting down . What I miss the most is my health and quality of life .

    • Thomas Freeman

      I truly hope that all of the citizens in Walkerton receive appropriate compensation. People need to live and if they have been physically and mentally hurt by the water scandal, then the people who still need help must receive it. I wish the best for all of you.

      Tom Freeman in Belgium

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