09/15/2011 02:22 EDT | Updated 11/15/2011 05:12 EST

E. coli case prompts criminal charges in B.C.

Two local governments and a farm in B.C.'s North Okanagan face criminal charges after manure contaminated drinking water in early 2010.

Almost 4,000 people were left without potable water in the Coldstream area for nearly a month in January 2010 when E. coli and other bacteria seeped into a well system east of Vernon.

The contamination happened after a torrential downpour caused flooding in the area. It's believed the potentially deadly bacteria entered the Antwerp well system through contaminated run-off, says Coldstream Mayor Jim Garlick.

"It was winter, and still pretty cold and the ground was frozen. What had happened was a farmer in the area had spread liquid manure on the field at a higher elevation and a rainstorm came through that night. That manure that was on the field came down and into an area where there was a well, and it entered the water system."

Residents were told not to use the water — not even after boiling.

"It was pretty adamant that.… 'Don't even turn on the tap. Don't touch the water. Don't put your hands in the water. You may flush the toilet but that is it,'" said Coldstream resident Brandie Wisbey about warnings at the time.

There were no reports of illness caused by the E. coli contamination.

The District of Coldstream and the Regional District of North Okanagan were charged with four offences under the Water Act, and the Drinking Water Protection Act. Ernest Palfrey and Pan-O-Ramic Farms Ltd. have been charged with two offences under the Environmental Protection Act.

If found guilty, the parties would be fined.

The Coldstream mayor said the community needs laws to protect it from agricultural waste.

"We have for the last three years gone to the UBCM and lobbied the provincial government for protection of water from agricultural practices in the area. And we have taken that argument forward, like I say, to Barry Penner — he was the minister — and we said we need some laws in place because we are struggling."

The Ministry of Environment said it's unable to offer comment as the matter is before the courts.