Blog: Walkerton’s Drinking Water Protection Legacy

A look back on the Walkerton drinking water tragedy, and lessons learned for protecting our drinking water today.

Blog post by: Julie Mutis, CELA Communications Intern

In May of 2000, the water supply in the town of Walkerton, Ontario was contaminated with E. coli. As a result, seven people lost their lives, thousands became ill and many live with lasting complications to this day. 

The tragedy was a wake-up call for Canadian citizens and leaders. The municipal tap water that everyone assumed was safe without a second thought had become contaminated and Ontarians could no longer take drinking water for granted.

What followed the tragedy in Walkerton was a provincial inquiry in two parts: the first focusing on the cause of the contamination in Walkerton, and the second focusing on the state of drinking water protection in Ontario. 

CELA was involved in the process from start to finish, working with the community, government and experts to not only determine how Walkerton’s water was contaminated, but to develop a system to ensure that no other community would have to experience the same thing. 

The Walkerton Inquiry and the reports it generated resulted an overhaul of Ontario’s drinking water laws and regulations and was the foundation for the province’s Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and other new laws.

Now 20 years later, the CELA team and their partners are revisiting their time working on the Walkerton case in an effort to document an important piece of Canadian environmental history. A new CELA video interview series examines the continuing legacy of the Walkerton Inquiry and serves as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance in the protection of the environment and human health. 

May 2000

Soon after news of the events in Walkerton broke, CELA was contacted by a group that would become the Concerned Walkerton Citizens – an organization that continues to exist today to advocate for safe drinking water. 

“Maybe experts had foreseen that there could be problems with water but we certainly didn’t in this community,” said Bruce Davidson, president of the Concerned Walkerton Citizens (CWC) and a CELA board member. 

The CWC and CELA went to work to make sure that the inquiry was designed in the best way possible to serve the needs of the community and the province. “The inquiry really was that vital and logical step for us to gain those answers and to ensure that we would have that roadmap for the future,” said Davidson. 

Paul Muldoon, CELA executive director and counsel during the inquiry, said that from the start, the community demonstrated the power and importance of grassroots organizing. “Despite the fact that many people were still ill, despite the fact that they were in the midst of this enormous tragedy in a very small community … The key instruction we received was ‘do what you can to not only to find out what happened, but to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.’” said Muldoon.

Theresa McClenaghan, the current CELA executive director and council to the CWC during the Walkerton Inquiry, said that the community’s involvement in each step of the process was vital. “We at CELA never do our best work unless the community is involved in the matter.”

Ramani Nadarajah, CELA senior council and part of the team that represented the CWC, said that one of the things that stands out about the Walkerton inquiry was the sheer number of documents that were submitted to the tribunalcourt. “I’ve been involved in a number of cases where there were a lot of documents, but it was at a whole different level at the inquiry,” she said. 

Fe de Leon, CELA paralegal and researcher, took on the role of document manager during the inquiry. She said that the CELA team had a lot of long nights in the office, organizing the documents that would arrive daily, sending them via courier to the team in Walkerton and then working over the phone to craft questions for the next day of the inquiry. 

The inquiry and Dennis O’Connor’s report revealed a disorganized system of water management in the province that relied on voluntary compliance from municipalities that lacked expertise and resources. The report outlined a number of sweeping recommendations for drinking water protection in Ontario that resulted in the Safe Drinking Water Act  and Clean Water Act that regulate our water systems today.

Walkerton’s Legacy

The Walkerton Inquiry helped introduce a multi-barrier approach to drinking water protection in Ontario. Laws and regulations have been put in place to prevent the initial contamination of source water as well as to ensure that water treatment systems are capable of removing any dangerous substances before water reaches the tap. 

McClenaghan says that while source protection is a less visible part of this approach it is “an essential piece of the puzzle.” Through regulations for farms, manufacturers and waste management facilities, there is an effort to stop contaminants from entering the source of drinking water in the first place.

Nadarajah said that another key change that resulted from the Walkerton Inquiry was the introduction of mandatory compliance for water protection regulations. She said that having more resources devoted to enforcement and inspections helps prevent water system operators from becoming complacent. 

Beyond enforcement measures within the environment ministry, the Walkerton Inquiry helped establish roles for independent advising and oversight of drinking water in Canada. “Enforcement, inspections and all of these checks and balances played an important role in regaining the trust of Ontarians,” said Jim Smith, chair of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council – one of the oversight bodies introduced after Walkerton. 

Joseph Castrilli, a CELA lawyer who represented the Ontario Water Works Association during the inquiry, said that one of the most impactful legacies of Walkerton is how it serves as a reminder to Ontario citizens and leaders that environmental problems can quickly morph into issues of public health. “We should never forget that a safe environment and public health go hand in hand,” he said.

In the years since Walkerton, CELA council Richard Lindgren says that there has been some resistance to the multi-barrier approach and the many rules and regulations that are associated with it. He said that there is a long history of governments pushing for deregulation without considering the full impact of loosening protections on any one part of the water system.  “I think we saw first hand the effects of an over ambitious attempt to cut so-called red tape by the provincial government at the time and I think we now know that deregulation is dangerous” 

“People are starting to not pay attention,” said Jim Merrit, a former assistant deputy minister of the Ontario environment ministry who served as the first president of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Committee and was involved in both parts of the Walkerton inquiry. “Councils aren’t quite as interested in drinking water, and I’m sorry to say that even some of the people who are in the [drinking water] business don’t seem to be very aware of what happened in Walkerton.” 

Despite the huge improvements to drinking water protection that came as a result of the Walkerton Inquiry, communities in Ontario – including some rural areas and some First Nations – still do not have adequate access to safe drinking water. 

McClenaghan said that water systems that serve a small number of people in remote and small communities pose complex logistical and financial challenges. She said that source water protection needs to be expanded to cover many more communities, and regulatory protection of wells needs to be improved in Ontario.

McClenaghan said that over the years, CELA has been working with a number of  First Nations partners as they work to solve the longstanding issues of drinking water safety in their communities. “Even 20 years after Canada’s worst drinking water contamination tragedy, she says, we still have a long way to go.”

View related pages on our site:

Walkerton’s Drinking Water Protection Legacy (including CELA’s video interview series examining Walkerton’s continuing legacy)

Law Reform: Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act

Law Reform: Ontario’s Clean Water Act  

Casework: The Walkerton Inquiry