It’s been nearly 18 years since the tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., and time has ticked on slowly in the small community.
On May 17, 2000, the first symptoms of E. coli contamination were reported in the town, however it took days before citizens were told not to drink the local tap water.
Resident Audrey Holliday remembers the period well. Her husband was scheduled to undergo bypass surgery that week, and her children — including her son, Jeff Holliday — had come from out of town to visit. Days later, it was Jeff who was on his deathbed.
Through tears, 79-year-old Audrey remembers the moment she found out about the contamination.
“They all came home to see their dad, to see him before he went for surgery,” she said.
“We didn’t know it was the water. My daughter-in-law worked at the hospital and said ‘don’t drink the water,’ but we had already filled him up with the Walkerton water so he could go back to work, so he was drinking what he shouldn’t have been.”
Jeff was a healthy, 35-year-old courier at the time. He was hospitalized for weeks.
Now 53, he doesn’t remember much from that period but said: “I got sick, I was throwing up. I couldn’t keep anything down, I had headaches, I had stomach pains. I ended up having a double transplant of my kidney and pancreas, and then five years later, after having the transplant, some of my large and small intestines (were) removed because (they were) all infected with E. coli.”
It was later determined that the source of the E. coli contamination was manure seeping into one of the town’s water wells from a nearby farm. Two brothers who worked at the utility, Stan and Frank Koebel, were found to be negligent in carrying out their duties in testing water and reporting findings. Stan was sentenced to one year in jail, his sibling Frank to nine months of conditional house arrest.
At the time, then-Ontario premier Mike Harris told community members: “We have this tragedy so I can commit this — that every aspect of this, from every level of government, will be looked at.”
A total of 2,300 people became ill because of the outbreak, and seven died. After a sweeping public inquiry and report by Justice Dennis O’Connor, the provincial government passed the Clean Water Act in 2006. The legislation drew upon the lessons learned from the Walkerton crisis, implementing source protection areas, stricter monitoring policies and a host of other regulations.
In December 2018, under Premier Doug Ford, the current government introduced Bill 66, titled the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act. The omnibus bill covers 12 ministries and has been touted as a means of cutting regulations and red tape.
“The days of job-killing regulatory burdens getting in the way of businesses, they’re done — they’re over,” Ford said last year.
If passed, the province, developers and municipalities could, in theory, bypass some regulations, provided a development could prove it would create jobs and generate an economic benefit.
In a statement, Emily Hogeveen with Environment Minister Rod Phillips’ office told Global News: “Ontario’s waters are among the best protected in the world as a result of our province’s strong monitoring, reporting and enforcement activities.”
The statement also addressed Bill 66, saying the legislation introduces no extended additional powers to the ministry.
“Rather, it increases transparency in the process, allowing local communities a voice,” Hogeveen continued. “Job creators have been vocal, expressing the need to reduce red tape and streamline the development approvals process.”
But while Hogeveen says the safety of water will “remain a priority for our government,” many in Walkerton are concerned.
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Bruce Davidson remembers being on the front line of the crisis in 2000. Davidson’s group, Concerned Walkerton Citizens, pushed for an independent public inquiry into E. coli contamination.
In an interview with Global News, Davidson said: “I don’t think another Walkerton is around the corner, but what happens is Walkerton took 20 years to develop, and if you chip away at the precautions and the protections that we put into place then you are leaving yourself in a vulnerable situation where you are ignoring the information before you about the threats.”
Jeff and Audrey Holliday are worried, too. While others might forget what happened nearly two decades ago, they simply can’t.
“When your neighbour gets sick and, next thing you know, you are at the funeral home with them, it’s kind of hard,” said Audrey. “I don’t think (Ford) should touch it — I think he should leave the water alone.”
Jeff still suffers from the effects of drinking contaminated water every day. He says Bill 66 is misguided at best.
“They should rethink it. If anything, get rid of it. They shouldn’t do anything at all. The water is clean now — let’s leave it and keep going forward.”