TORONTO - Officials of a rural Canadian town drank tap water Tuesday to signal the end of North America's worst E. coli contamination, which killed seven people and sickened 2,300 earlier this year.
Regional medical officer Dr. Murray McQuigge, one of those taking a sip, announced he was lifting a boil order for Walkerton's water more than six months after the crisis began in the Ontario community 90 miles west of Toronto.
The town's 5,000 residents have relied on bottled water and treating tap water with bleach, with many going to homes of friends and relatives in neighboring communities to bathe.
The contamination came after a heavy rain storm on May 12 washed cattle manure into a town well, according to evidence submitted at a judicial inquiry examining what happened,
The manure contaminated the water with the E. coli intestinal bacteria, which can cause severe illness and death, and a faulty chlorinating system in the well failed to kill the bacteria.
When people began getting sick, McQuigge issued a boil order for the town's water on May 21, and tests two days later confirmed the presence of E. coli. By May 25, five people had died and hundreds were sick.
Mayor David Thomson has said the manager of the Walkerton water utility, Stan Koebel, knew as early as May 18 about the E. coli contamination. Koebel, 47, apparently tried to fix the problem himself with more chlorine instead of notifying town or health officials, inquiry witnesses have testified.
Koebel, who was scheduled to testify this week, instead will undergo a psychiatric examination to determine his emotional fitness to face questioning.
The Ontario Clean Water Agency spent more than $7 million repairing the water system and installing a state-of-the-art filtration plant. The provincial Environment Ministry concluded last month the water was safe.