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Former Ontario environment minister Norm Sterling says he never read an urgent letter sent to him in 1997 by the health minister warning that drinking-water regulations contained a crucial loophole.

The letter was sent by Jim Wilson, who was worried that rules needed to be strengthened to force municipal waterworks operators to tell local public-health officials when tests showed dangerous contaminants in drinking water.

"Do you recall receiving a copy of this letter, minister?" Mr. Sterling was asked yesterday at the Walkerton inquiry by chief commission counsel Paul Cavalluzzo.

Mr. Sterling replied with a terse, one-word answer: "No."

He went on to admit that he never read Ontario's drinking water rules while he was minister and was not aware that these protocols were only voluntary guidelines that were not legally enforceable. "I was unfamiliar," he said. "I had never read the Ontario drinking-water objectives at that point in time."

Mr. Sterling, who is now Minister of Consumer and Business Services, who held the environment portfolio between 1996 and 1999.

He told the judicial inquiry that he "wasn't engaged" in the water-pollution file because he was distracted by other issues, and drinking-water protection was not a big concern.

"This whole area was really not high in terms of where the ministry was going," he said.

And he said he was assured by senior bureaucrats that massive cuts to the Environment Ministry's budget and staff -- cuts that included the privatization of water testing -- would pose no public risk.

"They unanimously said to me that they could implement this plan without unduly increasing any kind of risk to the public," Mr. Sterling said of his advisers.

But, last year, E. coli from cow manure that contaminated Walkerton's drinking water killed seven people and sickened thousands. It took four days for health officials to find out that privately conducted tests held by the staff of the local water utility indicated there was a problem.

The damaging testimony by a key minister in the Harris government adds to the evidence presented at the inquiry of bungling and incompetence by senior government politicians on environmental protection.

Unlike Brenda Elliott, his predecessor at the ministry who testified earlier this week, Mr. Sterling said he would accept some blame for the Walkerton tragedy if the inquiry finds that his failure to react to the letter was a contributing factor.

On Tuesday, Ms. Elliott said everyone in what she termed the government "team" should share responsibility.

But Mr. Sterling had a different answer, a response that may remove some of the pressure on Premier Mike Harris when he appears before the inquiry tomorrow.

"If this failure [on the letter]contributed to the events in Walkerton, who is responsible or accountable?" Mr. Cavalluzzo asked him.

"I am. I'm the Minister of Environment," Mr. Sterling replied.

While Mr. Sterling was on the stand at Walkerton, opposition critics were taking him to task in the legislature for saying senior ministry officials had assured him there would be no public risk.

"Now Norm Sterling says that there were some phantom bureaucrats out there, some phantom official or officials in his ministry, who said there was no need to worry," scoffed Liberal environment critic Jim Bradley.

Pointing to the Conservative side of the House, Mr. Bradley charged, "The whole bunch of you in the cabinet knew what was going on and you decided to ignore the warnings of Dr. [Richard]Schabas [the former chief medical officer of health]and others, and as a result seven people died in Walkerton and 2,000 people were sick."

In response, Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer argued that politicians "should not prejudge the outcome" of the inquiry by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor into the contaminated-water tragedy last year. "It's up to the inquiry to come to conclusions."

The inquiry is delving into one of the world's largest E. coli outbreaks, a tragedy that has made the small town a Canadian symbol for consequences of environmental deregulation.

As part of the cutbacks that Mr. Sterling helped to oversee, the ministry shut the provincial water-testing laboratories that municipalities had used to check for drinking-water contamination.

Before that time, when the province conducted the tests, the ministry notified local health officials if the results showed contaminants, a requirement that was not transferred to the privately owned laboratories.

Mr. Sterling said he was made aware of Mr. Wilson's concerns over this loophole as an afterthought at the end of a meeting called to discuss another topic.

A civil servant, whom Mr. Sterling said he could not remember, raised the issue of the health minister's letter briefly.

"It was, you know, a second in the time that I was minister. . . . It might have been a five- or 10-minute meeting," he said.

Mr. Sterling denied that ministry staff were afraid to propose new rules because the government's Red Tape Commission, a pet project of Mr. Harris, had a "distaste for regulation," as previous evidence at the inquiry indicated.

The idea of ministry staff being reluctant to propose new rules needed to protect public health "is just not on," Mr. Sterling said.

If ministry staff felt discouraged about proposing new rules, "it's unfortunate that they were misinformed," he said.

Mr. Sterling ended his testimony on a personal note, confessing that it is not easy to be a politician these days. "I only hope that my evidence today will give some comfort to the families and to the community of Walkerton."