COVID-19 affects plans as Walkerton, Ont. marks 20 years since E. coli tragedy
WALKERTON, ONT. -- This weekend Walkerton, Ont. marks a very grim anniversary, when it became known around the world, for all the wrong reasons.
For Phil Englishman, the E. coli disaster feels like it happened yesterday, not 20 years ago.
"I can't believe it’s been that long."
Englishman was one of 2,300 residents who fell ill from drinking water from their tap in May of 2000.
“It was responsible for the stroke I had back then. But I’ve recovered just like the town has recovered,” he says.
Seven people died in the tragedy that made international headlines.
CTV News reporter Sean Irvine was the first TV reporter to start covering the tragedy, 20 years ago this weekend.
“Back on Monday here I am, the first reporter to cover the story, and by Friday I’m shoulder to shoulder with reporters from CNN. It just developed so fast. The most shocking what was happening to Walkerton. I remember the continual air ambulance going in and out over the next few days.”
The fallout from what happened in Walkerton was felt around the world.
A public inquiry eventually led to an overhaul of how most countries manage their drinking water.
In May 2000, Bruce Davidson co-founded Walkerton Concerned Citizens, he remains involved in telling Walkerton’s story.
"I think when terrible things happen we want to look to the fact - was that tragedy in vain or did it serve some purpose?"
Events to commemorate Walkerton’s tragedy, and mark how far the town has come, were to take place this weekend, but were scuttled due to concerns over the transmission of COVID-19.
“Our thoughts are still there,” Davidson says. “I think in the future we will follow up on it."
But not all of Walkerton’s 5,000 current residents were eager to drum up the past this weekend. Many people have, or are trying to, move beyond the tragedy.
“We want to remember what the crisis did to us, but it's not up to the outside world to keep reminding us. We went through it, we know what it was…and we've moved on," says Englishman, who still lives in Walkerton.
But some worry the lessons learned about drinking-water safety are slowly being forgotten.
They point to the scores of similar places, including Indigenous communities in southwestern Ontario, where water still isn't safe to drink.
Still there is a positive legacy moving forward.
A scholarship is being offered through the Municipality of Brockton and the Walkerton Clean Water Centre for any local student going into the field of water management and/or environmental science.
Quick Facts about the Walkerton Tragedy
(Source: The Canadian Press)
What happened: Manure laden with e.coli O157:H7 seeped into a well supplying drinking water to town.
The toll: Seven people died; 2,300 fell ill.
Consequences: Two brothers who ran the water system were criminally convicted for falsifying records.
Public Inquiry: Concluded water operators, lax oversight and enforcement, and government cost-cutting contributed to disaster.
Reforms: Successive provincial governments passed sweeping legislation designed to enhance every aspect of drinking water safety.
Class Action: Compensation payouts topped $75 million.