13 Sep 2019

Mayor told of health risk at retirement complex in February - emails

2:20 pm on 13 September 2019

Emails show the mayor of Lower Hutt was told in February that bad plumbing in a retirement complex was life-threatening.

Woburn Apartments in Lower Hutt.

Woburn Apartments in Lower Hutt. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

But earlier this week, before the emails and plumbing audit were released to RNZ acting on a tipoff, mayor Ray Wallace claimed he was told only that there were "a few issues with leaks", and these were "operational matters".

All 96 apartments, worth up to $700,000 each, at the Masonic Woburn apartments had plumbing that two lots of investigations said was a severe or serious health risk.

The emails also show most repairs did not start for eight months, and the council refused to go on site to inspect the repairs out of fear of liability.

Robin Wright quit as the maintenance manager at the adjoining rest home last November, partly in disgust at what went on since he was first alerted in May 2018.

"Some people who owned one of the apartments called out to me and said, 'Rob, we have an extremely bad smell over in our apartment'.

"So I went over and had a sniff and I said, 'Yeah, crikey I said it smells like sewage'. And they said, 'That's what we're thinking' ... I said, 'It's mainly in your kitchen'."

He called in certifying plumber Mike Stevenson, and their checks revealed nine apartments had faulty floor wastes or traps that were not sealed with water (like an S-bend in a toilet) so had been venting from the sewer since construction.

Another 20 wastes in shared areas were also not sealed.

Residents told Mr Stevenson of frequent foul smells in the complex's communal bar and meeting area called Bar West, and he established this came from two faulty wastes.

Next, they found all the showers had bad drainage.

"So we put a piece of wire in underneath, and found we could go the whole width of the shower and we pulled it up, moss and mould and gunge out of there."

If it had been his own, or his parents' shower, he would have been worried. "Yes, hell, yes," Mr Wright said.

They also found backflow preventers were missing and untempered public-access taps had scalding hot water.

The Masonic Villages Trust has said tests that it would not release showed there had never been any health hazard.

Sewage smell comes from hydrogen sulphide which can cause respiratory and other problems at chronic low levels of exposure.

The daughter of a woman who lived in one of the worst apartments, said her mother kept picking up bugs but was dismissed by the complex's managers as a nuisance.

"Mum did have some ongoing tummy troubles around the period this seems to have been happening," said the woman, who RNZ agreed not to name.

"So we're now wondering whether it was related - we're checking with her GP to see whether she considers it might have been a factor in mum's sicknesses."

Her family found out about this on Wednesday from RNZ's reports.

They and their mother had a right to know, from the very first, she said.

"If we'd known that we could have raised that with the GP when mum was sick so often.

"Absolutely unimpressed, and I think everyone in that complex should be aware of this and, as far as I know, they haven't been formally informed."

The Masonic trust told RNZ it would not be providing any further information.

Mr Wallace also refused to be interviewed.

He wrote an email in February this year, immediately after the investigating plumber Mr Stevenson had phoned him, to council chief executive Tony Stallinger.

"I have just had a call from the tradesman who has worked on the Masonic facility ... he has said this building has serious and dangerous compliance issues," Mr Wallace wrote.

"He has said he notified Hutt City Council in July 2018 and believes nothing has been done about this life-threatening issue. Can you please advise what the council is doing."

Earlier this week, before the emails came out, Mr Wallace told RNZ that Mr Stevenson "didn't really identify himself" in that call, that the problems were "operational" only, and "an issue for the Masonic Trust and their private residents and tenants".

Yesterday he issued a statement: "The mayor was contacted by a concerned person ... and immediately referred them to the then-chief executive ... to follow up as it was an operational matter.

"The mayor was subsequently advised that officers were taking the matter seriously and communicating regularly with the property manager as repairs were carried out."

The February emails show the chief executive told the mayor this, but also that the trust wanted the repairs inspected.

"Repairs are being done, albeit probably not to Mike's [Stevenson's] satisfaction," Mr Stallinger wrote to the mayor.

"Note, we won't be inspecting that work as it does not require a building consent. In fact we advised against going on site to inspect as we could assume some liability in that circumstance."

In fact, the major repairs had commenced only two weeks before this email, on 28 January, eight months after the first discovery.

The emails show the trust was tied up with legal, architectural, and engineering issues.

The repairs still are not finished.

'They were waiting to find out who was to blame'

Mr Wright cleaned out the showers straight away in June, and then spent months filling up the floor wastes by hand to stop gas seeping in, till he quit his job in November. He does not know if this filling carried on.

"I feel that when the first major report went in from Mike, had so many things that should have been looked at within days.

"And we actually took quite a while before we actually went to a meeting with the board and with the builders. There was still nothing done.

"Lots of talk was going on. But I think they were waiting to find out who was to blame before they were going to do anything.

"I was getting a bit rundown after all this crap and even Mike was the same. And I'd get a bit angry with my partner and stuff and I was saying, 'This is unbelievable'."

He said he rejected the city council's claim that its inspectors could not access concealed spaces to check the plumbing, and so signed it off based on the plumber's say-so.

"They could've checked the same way that we checked [with the wire]."

The city council did not get the July audit until February 2019, when Mr Stevenson sent it to the council off his own bat.


May - Foul smells reveal defects; Hutt City Council alerted

June-July - Audit by certifying registered plumber; showers and wastes cleaned

July - Trust complains to Plumbers Board. Board begins inquiry, alerts health authorities and police to death of a resident, though says it isn't known if the plumbing issue had had an impact on the resident's health. (The Hutt Valley Medical Officer of Health later said records showed the death had nothing to do with bad plumbing in the building)

July-Sept - Air and water tests (not released)

Aug-Jan (2019) - Masonic Trust caught up in "a multitude of issues that hover around the remedial work"

December - Six showers out of 88 fixed

Late Jan - repairs recommence; Trust asks for council inspections - council says 'no'

Feb - Mayor Ray Wallace alerted

March - Unsealed pipes still undergoing temporary fix

May - 37 showers fixed, 51 not fixed; valves in 86 apartments checked, fixed

July-August - Consultants check repairs

Sept - Repairs still not signed off.

  • 2013-2015 - First stage of Woburn Apartments built
  • 2016- 2017 - Second stage built
  • Residents exposed to noxious sewer gases at retirement complex in Lower Hutt