Tory cuts contributed to Walkerton tragedy, judge told

Colin Perkel
Globe and Mail
August 24, 2001

The provincial Tories’ fixation on the bottom line contributed directly to deaths from tainted-water in Ontario, a lawyer for the provincial Public Service Employees Union argued Thursday.

 
Driven by ideological zeal, the government ignored numerous warnings about the risks its budget cuts posed to public health and the environment, lawyer Don Eady said in closing submissions to an inquiry into E. coli contamination that killed seven people and made thousands ill in Walkerton last year.
 
The government has argued that it is not responsible for the deaths and illnesses in May of 2000, saying the reckless dishonesty of water manager Stan Koebel, who violated safety guidelines, defeated a perfectly adequate system.
 
But speaking for an environmental coalition, lawyer Louis Sokolov rejected the government’s position as untenable, as he did Mr. Koebel’s attempt to minimize his responsibility.
 
"To find the contributing causes of the tragedy, you have to look to Stan Koebel and the Walkerton [Public Utilities Commission], you have to look equally to [Premier] Mike Harris and his cabinet, and you have to look to the Ministry of the Environment," Mr. Sokolov told Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor. During its 10 months of hearings, the inquiry heard allegations that the rush to privatize laboratories in 1996 caused widespread confusion in reporting bad water.
 
The government’s distaste for regulation ignored the need for important safety measures, such as one that would have required water operators to install equipment to automatically track disinfection levels, Mr. Eady said.
 
Justice O’Connor appeared to have difficulty with Mr. Eady’s contention, given that previous provincial governments had not implemented such policies. "If the deficiency was already there . . . how can I say the new policy, the budget cuts, was a cause of the deficiency?"
 
Mr. Eady conceded that previous governments could be faulted, but he said that doesn’t excuse the Mike Harris government, the cutbacks of which were distracting to the Environment Ministry.
 
Mark Mattson, a lawyer for the environmental organization Energy Probe, disagreed that the privatization of water-testing laboratories contributed to the disaster. But he blamed the Ontario government for failing to ensure appropriate safeguards were in place.
 
He blamed the Environment Ministry for failing to take legal action against the scores of public utilities that did not meet guidelines.
 
Mr. Mattson said the fact that hundreds of legal orders were issued in the months immediately after the disaster suggests the government too came to realize the error of its ways. "Certainly, their actions following Walkerton and this complete 180-degree turn would support that." 
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