Five years after contaminated water killed seven people and sickened 2,300 in Walkerton, Ont., the causes of the tragedy are widely understood.
Just ask the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which bills itself as “the nation’s most effective environmental action organization.” In a review of Every Drop for Sale: Our Desperate Battle Over Water in a World About to Run Out, the chairman of the editorial board of NRDC’s magazine explained the events of May, 2000:
In Walkerton, Ontario, a private operator took over the town’s main well. When the company discovered E. coli bacteria in the water supply, it failed to inform anyone for five days. Within weeks, seven people had died and 2,000 had fallen ill. In its defence, the private operator claimed that it was too understaffed to have alerted its customers, and that in any case the contract did not specifically call for notification.
Or ask Jeff Rothfeder himself, the author of Every Drop for Sale, who maintained that “a private testing lab that had taken over operation of the town’s central well failed for five days to tell local authorities that the water had been contaminated with E. coli bacteria.” Rothfeder used Walkerton to illustrate his concerns about “the transfer of the world’s water delivery systems from the public to the private sector” and his contention that “the performance of many water companies, which tend to be focused more on profits than on public opinion, has been shoddy and often insensitive to local concerns.”
Or ask Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, which cited the Walkerton experience in its “Top 10 Reasons to Oppose Water Privatization.” The organization explained that Walkerton’s “contamination problem was revealed in a federal government study several years earlier, but the study was lost in the privatization frenzy.”
Or ask the Sierra Club of Canada, which, in its Story of Corporate Water Privatization, illustrated a page on the privatization of public water systems in Walkerton with a picture of a graveyard. The organization blamed the disaster on then-premier Mike Harris and his “wrong-headed and dangerous neo-conservative policies” and on a private lab that “refused to notify public authorities of health risks.”
Or go farther afield and ask Vandana Shiva, who referred to the Walkerton tragedy in Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. The founder of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology tells us that the private lab that tested Walkerton’s water “treated the test results as ‘confidential intellectual property’ and did not make them public, just as Union Carbide withheld information about the leaked chemicals in its Bhopal, India, plant while thousands were dying.”
Joining Ms. Shiva at a press conference in New Delhi earlier this year was Tony Clark of Canada’s Polaris Institute, whose explanation of the Walkerton tragedy appeared in The Hindu: “In Walkerton, the testing of water was privatized. And this resulted in a decline in [the] quality of water. For the first time, water was polluted and contaminated and several people fell sick. In fact, seven people died.”
By now, almost everyone knows that privatization is to blame for the Walkerton deaths. A Google search produces 222 results for “Walkerton: privatization kills” — a phrase likely coined by the president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 512, who described the tragedy as the “inevitable consequence of the deadly life-destroying policies of right-wing politicians determined to carry out the political agenda demanded by big business.”
More generally, Google turns up more than 6,400 items linking Walkerton and privatization, the great majority of them pointing to privatization as a primary cause of the tragedy. Many can be traced to the usual suspects — the NDP, the World Socialist Web site, the Council of Canadians. But they haven’t been confined to lefty activists and politicos. They are now cropping up in academia, or at least what tries to pass for it.
Last spring, geography students at the University of Wisconsin (Eau Claire) produced a Web site on water privatization and commodification, on which they explained that at least seven people had died in Walkerton “after water testing had been privatized by A&L Labs. The company treated the test results as ‘confidential intellectual property’ and did not make them public.”
The blame-privatization interpretation of the Walkerton tragedy is thought to be safe enough to earn a student a good mark. Indeed, a student can purchase one of several term papers on the subject. One can log on to AcaDemon for Walkerton, Public Good and Privatization, a paper that “examines the wider consequences of declining public investment and involvement in infrastructure and the consequences of the Ontario government’s neo-conservative commitment to reducing ‘public goods.’ ” Never mind that the 1,400-word paper cites just three sources. For just US$53.95, what would one expect? Top that up by US$36, and Essay Town will provide Walkerton and ‘Good Red Tape,’ an examination of the Walkerton disaster that “identifies the government’s neo-conservative philosophy as the key factor in the breakdown,” complete with eight sources.
There’s only one problem with the common Walkerton wisdom: It is utter nonsense. No private operator took over the town’s main well. No private testing lab failed to tell local authorities that Walkerton’s water was contaminated. No federal government study revealed Walkerton’s contamination, and there was no privatization frenzy for the non-existent study to get lost in.
The culprits in the Walkerton tragedy were not private but public. The Honourable Dennis O’Connor, commissioner of the Walkerton inquiry, laid blame on two public bodies: the Public Utilities Commission and its government regulators.
The Walkerton PUC was a publicly owned and publicly operated utility. It was its publicly employed general manager, Stan Koebel, who failed for five days to tell health or environment officials he had received a lab report that his water was contaminated — and who repeatedly denied tainted water might be the cause of the sickness sweeping the community, assuring both the regional health unit and the environment ministry’s emergency call centre that the town’s water was “OK.”
This betrayal was consistent with a long history of incompetence and deception at the public utility. Chief Justice O’Connor described Mr. Koebel and his staff as ill-trained and uninformed about water safety, having a cavalier and undisciplined attitude, engaging for years in a host of improper operating practices (including failure to monitor chlorine residuals, which, if low, suggest contamination in a system), and regularly falsifying operating records and reports to the Environment Ministry (MOE).
Justice O’Connor came down hard on the government, too, pointing out that the Environment Ministry is supposed to ensure that water operators perform satisfactorily. He criticized a number of ministry programs, including those concerning water operator certification and training, facility approvals and inspections, and compliance with standards.
But Justice O’Connor insisted that the province’s many failures did not exonerate the public utility: “Stan Koebel and the others at the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission are responsible for their own actions and for the consequences of those actions. Failures by the MOE in overseeing the operation of the Walkerton water system do not excuse those actions, nor do they lessen the responsibilities of the individuals involved.”
(Mr. Koebel’s criminal trial concluded last year with the negotiation of a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to common nuisance, avoiding the more serious charges of forgery and breach of trust. He was released from jail in April, having served less than four months of his one-year sentence. So much for the vaunted accountability of our public-sector employees.)
The one party spared Justice O’Connor’s criticism was A&L Laboratories, the private lab that tested Walkerton’s water. The lab found the contamination and promptly notified Mr. Koebel by both telephone and fax. It did not notify health or Environment officials: It was not obligated to do so under the law, and industry standards required it to protect its client’s confidential information. Justice O’Connor determined that A&L’s actions resulted from the government’s failure to enact a notification regulation. Had such a regulation been in place, he explained, “I am satisfied that A&L would have informed itself of the protocol and complied with it.”
Despite clear evidence that the Walkerton tragedy resulted from massive public-sector failure, Ontario remains perversely committed to public water systems. Although David Caplan, Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal, pays lip service to private financing of infrastructure, he has stressed that water-treatment systems must remain in public hands. Even private financing seems tenuous. After the announcement in this month’s budget of a five-year, $30-billion infrastructure investment plan, Mr. Caplan rushed to assure critics that private money will make up less than 10% of the total.
Greater private-sector participation — along with the capital, expertise, innovation, efficiency and accountability it promises — apparently demands a bolder commitment than our politicians can muster. And little wonder. As we learned from Walkerton, privatization kills. Ask almost anyone.