THE WALKERTON TRAGEDY - A SOMBER ANNIVERSARY
A MESSAGE FROM THE OWWA
This spring marked the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest chapters in the history of Ontario’s municipal water supply – the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario that caused thousands of people to experience agonizing illness. Seven people lost their lives, and many others have suffered life-long complications, numerous hospitalizations, and multiple organ transplants. All of this because they drank municipally-supplied tap water.
As we pause to remember the victims of this tragedy, it is important that we renew our dedication to remembering the lessons learned, and continue to apply those lessons to protect the health and welfare of Ontario’s municipal water consumers.
All members of Ontario’s water community are familiar with the technical details of the tragedy; the poorly-maintained well in a contamination-prone location; the heavy rains that washed manure toward that well; the lack of chlorination; the lack of reporting, oversight, transparency, and understanding. The haunting tragedy of Walkerton is how entirely preventable it was – not in hindsight, but with the knowledge and abilities that existed long before the year 2000.
When the news of Walkerton broke, we were shocked. How could that possibly happen here? The illness in Walkerton was not caused by a new threat like COVID-19; we’ve known about waterborne pathogens since the 1850s. We knew how to construct safe wells and maintain them properly. We knew how to disinfect water, test it, and keep it safe as it travelled through our distribution systems. The subsequent investigations did not reveal any gaps in our science or technology. The suffering and death in Walkerton occurred despite all of our knowledge and abilities, and all of the resources available in our modern and affluent society.
The good news is that we took Walkerton very seriously. The Ontario government appointed the Honourable Justice Dennis O'Connor to lead a Public Inquiry consisting of two parts. Part One was an investigation to understand what went wrong, and Part Two provided 93 specific recommendations to ensure the safety of Ontario’s drinking water going forward, many of which were submitted to Justice O’Connor by the OWWA.
There isn’t room in this space to list the improvements that have resulted from Justice O’Connor’s recommendations, ranging from Source Water Protection to the Drinking Water Quality Management Standard. Subsequent legislation ensured that these innovative recommendations became our common practices. Justice O’Connor described the general principles behind his recommendations as follows:
“While it is not possible to utterly remove all risk from a water system, the recommendations’ overall goal is to ensure that Ontario’s drinking water systems deliver water with a level of risk so negligible that a reasonable and informed person would feel safe drinking the water.”
The Walkerton tragedy was the catalyst for monumental changes that have provided Ontario with one of the world’s most robust systems of safeguarding municipal drinking water quality. We should be proud of our accomplishments, but we must also remember Justice O’Connor’s caution that: “The Walkerton experience warns us that we may have become victims of our own success, taking for granted our drinking water’s safety.”
Walkerton happened because of complacency - because we let our guard down – because we did not think it could happen here.
The philosopher George Santayana warned that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We must always remember Walkerton. We must never allow ourselves to start believing that it cannot happen here.
It can happen here. It did happen here. It is our duty to prevent it from happening here again.
Justice O’Connor advised that: “The keynote in the future should be vigilance. We should never be complacent about drinking water safety.” This is the most important lesson from Walkerton – the need to remain vigilant, and to never forget the terrible consequences of failure.