Chris Bolton, CEO of Benchmark Labs, has found E. coli 0157 — the pathogen that led to the deaths of seven people in Walkerton, Ont., 12 years ago — in several spots across southern Alberta.
He worries an Alberta community could be the next Walkerton, and says too many cattle operations are doing too little to keep their manure runoff out of the waterways.
"There doesn't seem to be any containment between the open livestock pens, the dairy barns and the other facilities that are here, and they slope directly down to the canal," Bolton said.
Over the past two years, Bolton has found E. coli 0157, high coliform counts and salmonella in irrigation canals.
E.coli 0157 can be deadly at any level. It produces toxins that can cause severe gastroenteritis and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS, most common in young children, can cause permanent vascular and kidney damage and can be fatal, according to Alberta Health and Wellness.
Bolton said he's frustrated with the response he's been getting from the provincial government:
"We're finding huge gaps between the different agencies … either through miscommunication or lack of will. We're not seeing a lot of action in this area," he said.
The Alberta Beef Producers, an industry group, however, said E. coli is naturally occurring and it's unfair to blame cattle producers for the higher than average rates of infection in the province.
They added that wildlife feces is a potential source of the pathogen.
The Natural Resources Conservation Board said its current risk management system for protecting surface water has been recently strengthened and is working well.University of Calgary microbiologist Glen Armstrong said there should be a followup on the locations where E. coli 0157 was found, but added he isn't too concerned about the elevated coliforms or E. coli levels, which are over the provincial guidelines, but not by much.