PWF Blog

PWF Blog 2/3/16

From Public Works Financing newsletter
March, 2016

Before Flint—Fatal Outbreaks in Milwaukee and Walkerton, Ont.

The institutional and human failures that caused the lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water supply (see p. 14) are only the most recent examples of similar problems that have led to rare but lethal outbreaks in Canada and the U.S.

An E. coli outbreak contaminated the water supply of the small community of Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000, killing seven people and sickening thousands.

The deaths were variously blamed on one or a combination of the province’s decision to download responsibility for water testing to municipalities, cuts to the Ministry of the Environment’s budget (which once monitored water quality, but that function had been privatized), sudden heavy rains that overwhelmed the system, the unregulated expansion of factory farms producing huge volumes of untreated manure, and failures on the part of Walkerton’s utility staff. Its public works department head, the water department head and a water operator were all relatives.

A far worse health emergency occurred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1993, when the city’s water supply suffered an outbreak of cryptosporidium that killed 69 people, most of them AIDs patients. The belief among water professionals is that the contamination occurred when a discharge of animal waste into Lake Michigan hit the plant’s intakes at the same time water plant operators were testing filters.

Milwaukee claimed in court that its treatment plant and employees were not the source of the contamination. A class action settlement was filed with Milwaukee County’s Circuit Court on Mar. 2, 2000 that limited the city’s liability to $100,000 for all damages and legal fees stemming from the outbreak.

The city’s attorney was Linda E.B. Hansen, of Crivello, Carlson, Mentkowski & Steves. Based on what was known about cryptosporidium in 1993, she told Public Works Financing 15 years ago that the city could not have done more than it did to prevent the contamination. None of the prosecution’s expert witnesses deposed by the city found fault with the treatment plant’s design or operation, she said.

Further, “Even though all water quality indicators were within federal guidelines at the time, there was quite a bit of anger in the community regarding the outbreak, as well as loss of trust in the use of potable water,” says Dr. Stephen Gradus, Director of the City of Milwaukee Health Department Public Health Laboratories Division, since 1990.

As a result, Milwaukee’s city-owned water utility committed to spend $417 million on multiple-barrier protection of source water, ozone disinfection, chlorine disinfection, biologically active filtration, and continuous water quality monitoring of source and treated water for more than 500 contaminants.

In 1998, it hired Suez Water to manage its wastewater system. Veolia Water took over that responsibility when the city recompeted the contract in 2007.

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