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Health, Science and Environment

Lessons learned -- and missed -- from a deadly water crisis

Elizabeth Miller/Ideastream
Great Lakes Today
Operators monitor Wellington's raw water, water going to residents, and tap water from the town treatment plant.

Before water contamination emergencies hit Flint, Mich. a crisis in Canada became deadly.

When E. coli invaded the drinking water in Walkerton, half of the town became ill and seven people died.  That led to a turnaround in the way the community treats its water and trains employees. 
But a question lingers: Does Walkerton’s tragedy still resonate in the U.S.?

Walkerton, Ont., is a rural town with a population around 5,000 people.  “We’re known for our beautiful beaches, our agriculture, and our nuclear power plant,” said Bruce Davidson, massage therapist turned co-founder of The Concerned Walkerton Citizens.

In May of 2000, after several days of heavy rain, agricultural runoff contaminated a water well in the town.  But it was days before residents were told not to drink, wash with, or cook with the water. 

Investigators found that the two operators managing Walkerton’s water had inadequate training – and they had lied about water samples for years.  But no one higher up noticed it.

There are many scars left in Walkerton, including lingering health issues and financial costs.

“Experts had estimated about 15 percent of the population would suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, equivalent of being in a war zone,” said Davidson.  “This tragedy I think is now approaching $200 million in cost.”

Walkerton’s story mirrors more recent episodes, especially lead contamination issues in Flint.  They all show that when a water utility is mismanaged, it’s the community that suffers – and that doesn’t end when the water is “safe” to drink again.

But some good did come out of that tragedy – stricter regulations for water managers, better oversight from the province of Ontario, and the Walkerton Clean Water Centre.

The Centre was created in 2004 as a direct response to Walkerton’s tragedy.  It trains water operators and owners throughout the province of Ontario.

“We have that technology demonstration facility that helps with the hands-on training, but also we look after helping municipalities with bad water or problems with their water processes,” said the Centre’s CEO, Roman Martiuk.

Impact beyond the border

Over 300 miles south of Walkerton is the town of Wellington, Ohio.  It has about 4,700 residents and gets its water from a reservoir.

At the Wellington Water Treatment Plant, Chief Operator Scott Bowman says what happened in Walkerton taught him a lesson in diligence.

“You cannot take this for granted because it can happen,” said Bowman.  “You have to be on your toes, that’s all there is to it. you have to maintain your plant, your equipment, your chlorination equipment.

Wellington’s also had its own bout with contaminated water.  In 2001, just one year after Walkerton, E. coli at the Lorain County Fair in Wellington infected several people.

The plant superintendent says he’s corrected the issues at the fairgrounds, and remains vigilant.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified the Lorain fair as a case of airborne E. coli, but Wellington water operators say they focused future prevention efforts on removing hoses near hog barns.

Cost are a challenge, however, especially for expensive programs to monitor water quality.

Steve Hrudey, a retired toxicology professor from the University of Alberta, travels the world holding workshops for water treatment professionals.  He’s seen two responses to the Walkerton tragedy – regulators who viewed it as a wake-up call, and “the other camp, which unfortunately is larger than I’d like to see it, is ‘Oh well, that was Walkerton, that could never happen here,'” explained Hrudey.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t take that approach.  The agency’s Beth Messer says post-Walkerton, the federal EPA helped states set disinfection requirements, which went into effect in 2010.  The state of Ohio also used Walkerton when it came to toughening its laws.

“We did use the Walkerton example to pass legislation for criminal provisions specifically to drinking water,” said Messer.

Lessons still to learn

Hrudey says the U.S. needs a water safety plan that focuses more on operators instead of monitoring.  He says that’s especially true of Flint, where more than 10 people face criminal charges.

“It’s not that there’s a failure to monitor for microbial contaminants, there’s a failure to understand that that risk swamps everything else,” said Hrudey.

“If you don't have adequate disinfection, it’s not a question of if people get sick it’s a question of when and how many.”

Hrudey says water utilities should realize trouble can happen to anyone – and citizens should hold their officials responsible.