Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 2 - 3, April - August 2001

CELA at the Walkerton Inquiry - The Walkerton Inquiry Nearing Its Completion

On August 27, 2001, Part I of the Walkerton Inquiry concluded final arguments. The Inquiry was announced in June of 2000 following the death of seven people and thousands becoming ill due to contaminated drinking water in Walkerton. Apart from the preliminary matters heard in September, the Inquiry formally commenced on October 16, 2000. It heard over 100 witnesses with tens of thousands of pages of documentary evidence. Part IA of the Inquiry dealt with the physical causes of the tragedy while Part IB questioned the effect of changes to the Ontario government's laws, policies and practices.

Apart from the Part I hearing, the Walkerton Inquiry, headed by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, was asked to make recommendations generally as to how to protect the province's drinking water. In this context, Part II of the Inquiry examines, in a more general fashion, what changes are needed to the present drinking water protection regime. This part of the Inquiry included a series of research and position papers commissioned or sponsored by the Commission. For Part II, the Commission held a series of expert meetings on topics relating to drinking water. In addition, there were "town hall" meetings throughout Ontario where the Commissioner visited and heard first-hand about the challenges relating to drinking water in the province. Finally, a number of public hearings on the Part II issues were also scheduled in Toronto. At these public hearings the Commission formally heard submissions from the parties on the related issues.

CELA represented Concerned Walkerton Citizens (CWC) in all parts of the Inquiry. This issue of the Intervenor includes a first-hand view from this group of its experience with the Inquiry as described by its co-founders. (Read "From Infamy to Excellence.") With respect to Part I, CWC not only attended all of the hearing, but it submitted evidence with respect to research that it initiated pertaining to how Walkerton well water was contaminated. CWC retained two hydrogeologists to study and report on their views of how the contamination occurred and what the implications are for future sources of drinking water for the community. CELA lawyers actively participated in the cross examination of key witnesses including the medical officer of health, the town and PUC officials, Ministry of the Environment staff, deputy ministers of the environment, environment ministers and the Premier, among many others.

On August 15 and 16, 2001, CELA presented its final argument on behalf of CWC. The argument, which was over 200 pages in length, argued that the Walkerton tragedy was the result of a convergence of factors with both direct and indirect causes. The direct causes relate to a series of actions or inactions by local operators and authorities, combined with geology, weather, farm operations and other factors. The indirect causes relate to the original siting and approval of the well, the inadequacy, the lack of integration and the under capacity of laws, regulations and policies, practices and institutions relating to the protection of drinking water in the province, and the confusion of roles and responsibilities of those involved in the drinking water system.

In addition to CWC's argument, the Commission heard some eight days of argument from other Parties in the Inquiry. It is now up to the Commissioner to assess the evidence and make his own findings as to both the direct causes and the effect of government laws, policies and practices.

On behalf of itself and CWC, CELA actively participated in Part II expert meetings and public hearings. CELA and CWC submitted two key research papers during this part of the Inquiry. The first, titled Tragedy on Tap: Why Ontario Needs a Safe Drinking Water Act, makes a comprehensive argument as to why a new statute is needed to protect drinking water. This initiative would include a legislative guarantee of safe drinking water to the people of Ontario as well as a host of other protections. In the second paper, which is titled Water Services in Ontario: For the Public, By the Public, CELA, CWC along with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and CUPE argue for the need to ensure that water work operations are not privitized but remain under the ownership and operation of government. Both of these papers are linked as related information, below.

Although most of the Part II activities have already been completed, a number of public hearings are scheduled for September. As with Part I, the Commissioner will work his way through the material and make conclusions in his final report scheduled for December of this year.

While CELA's involvement at the Inquiry may be winding down, certainly the real work involved in ensuring that the implementation of a more comprehensive and preventive drinking water protection regime will be the next major undertaking for our organization.

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA