Well of Lies

By Colin N. Perkel

In his recent book on the U.S. Supreme Court case of Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has an impassioned endnote complaining of the “incredible incompetence wherever one looks in life.” Despite enjoying high public esteem for their intelligence, training, and skill, Bugliosi describes the “overwhelming majority of trial lawyers” as “either incompetent or operating at a very low level of competence.” He then goes on to give the example of trades workers fixing up a new home – plumbers, carpenters, and electricians who are “perfectly normal, incompetent people”: “It is just too much for them to do their job well, even though the work they do is relatively simple work they do every day, and it’s almost mechanical, requiring very little thinking.” And what about the “substantial percentage of people” who don’t even know how to leave a message on your answering machine? Is it not the case that incompetence is “endemic in our society”?

One imagines Bugliosi would get few arguments from the people of Walkerton, Ontario. Starting just before the Victoria Day weekend in May 2000, hundreds of people in the Walkerton area were infected with a potentially lethal strain of E. Coli bacteria that had entered the town’s water system. By the time the epidemic had run its course an estimated 2,300 people had fallen ill, and seven were dead.

The subsequent public inquiry into the tragedy found a system that had failed on many levels. The focus of attention, however, was on Stan and Frank Koebel, the brothers who ran Walkerton’s public utilities. That Stan and Frank had only minimal education and no advanced training in how to run a municipal water system didn’t matter as much as the fact that they were a pair of good ol’ boys the town was comfortable with. Putting the lie to the Peter Principle, they rose well above the level of their own incompetence.

Well of Lies by Colin Perkel, a reporter who covered the Walkerton story for the Canadian Press, is a highly readable account of the disaster. Beginning with the storm that flushed contaminants from a neighbouring farm into an underground aquifer that fed one of the town’s older wells, he follows the story day-by-day from the first reports of a strange illness affecting the people of Walkerton and the immediate medical and political response, through the public inquiry and its aftermath.

The writing can get a bit thick. When Justice David O’Connor visits Walkerton it seems “as if the giant beating heart of the town had broken under the crushing weight of its grief.” The storm that ushers in the tragedy features lightning that “split the sky as if angry gods were venting their fury on a hapless world.”

In addition to these purple patches, and the occasional mixed metaphor, Perkel also fails to deliver the goods in his indictment of then Premier Mike Harris. That the gutting of the Ministry of the Environment and hasty privatization of the water-testing laboratories contributed to the Walkerton disaster is clear, but Perkel’s condemnation of Harris is too personal and impressionistic to stick. This is not a long book, and many of the issues raised by the public inquiry could have been dealt with in greater depth.

According to Perkin the final tally for the Walkerton disaster, excluding the incalculable human cost, may be $150 million, most of it being borne by provincial taxpayers. This is far too high a price for incompetence, no matter how valuable the lessons we have learned.

Review first published April 13, 2002.

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