16 Apr 2021

East Otago water supply lead report finds authorities were not notified

5:39 pm on 16 April 2021

Dunedin City Council has bought a new specialist machinery which lets it test for lead in the water every 20 minutes, as a review into spiking lead in the water supply.

Garden tap leaking, dripping, water.

Photo: 123RF

The review confirmed health authorities were not alerted to several concerning lead levels in East Otago's water supply last year.

A do not drink notice remains in effect in Waikouaiti, Karitane and Hawksbury Village after intermittent spikes in the level of lead in the area's drinking water were detected from July last year.

A report assessing the health response has been released today.

"It is quite clear from this event that reporting of exceedances of [acceptable lead levels] by both the [Dunedin City] Council and the laboratory hindered the timeliness of the health response," the report said.

While Public Health South was alerted to the 31 July 2020 spike in lead levels, they were not informed of several others until January this year.

The Ministry of Health did not learn of the concerning lead levels until 31 January, the Dunedin City Council's chief executive Sandy Graham was not informed until 1 February and Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins only learned of the problem in the hours before the do not drink notice was issued on 2 February.

Once the public was informed of the problem and the do not drink notice was in place, a blood-lead level testing campaign started on 4 February.

"Although the lead contamination event in Waikouaiti is ongoing, the public health response to date has been timely and appropriate," the review said.

"Internal procedures within the Ministry of Health and Public Health South were followed and ensured excellent management of this event. No legislative levers or powers were required or used at the time of this report. DCC have been proactive in undertaking internal changes to enable timely reporting of exceedances and are taking steps to replace piping that may have contributed to this event."

Dunedin City Council gets new equipment to improve testing of lead in water

Dunedin City Council chief executive Sandy Graham said the council had now purchased specialist machinery from Belgium to test for lead every 20 minutes as it entered Waikouaiti's water treatment plant.

"This means we will know immediately if we get elevated lead levels in the water and can respond straight away," Graham said.

"We've made other improvements too, such as bringing forward pipe replacement work, and we're planning an upgrade of the Waikouaiti water treatment plant as well."

She said the investigation into the cause of the elevated lead levels was continuing, and the exact cause may never be determined.

Minister welcomes review, recommendations

Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall welcomed the findings.

"New Zealanders have every right to expect that their drinking water is safe," she said.

"I asked the Director-General of Health to conduct a rapid review using independent expertise to look into how local and central government health agencies responded to elevated lead levels.

"The Director-General has reported back to me on the findings. I'm pleased the overall finding of the report showed that the health response was timely and appropriate. The actions of the health agencies meant the risk to the public's health was reduced.

"The report, however, made several recommendations to reduce the chance of this happening again. They include improvements to several areas in the current and proposed regulatory framework for drinking water, such as better reporting by water suppliers and a review of the process for Public Health Units to access expert advice.

"I know the Director-General is acting on the recommendations. The report also includes recommendations for Taumata Arowai, the agency that will regulate drinking water nationally from 1 July 2021. Taumata Arowai will be best placed to take account many of the recommendations once the Water Services Bill takes effect."

Dr Bloomfield said he supported the recommendations of today's review.

"The overall finding of the report was that the public health risk assessment and response was timely and appropriate, particularly around informing the community and undertaking lead screening," he said.

"I am satisfied the timing of the advice to the community to stop drinking the water was appropriate. The public meetings to keep the community informed were well received and their rapid standing up of testing centres particularly helped determine the overall residents' exposure to lead.

"Less than 40 people were found to have lead exposure above notifiable levels and on further assessment, many were found to be higher than normal due to other environmental factors."

Dunedin City Council's handling of lead scare to be reviewed

A review of the Dunedin City Council's handling of the East Otago lead scare would begin once its terms of reference were decided next month.

Dunedin's Mayor Aaron Hawkins said he welcomed the findings of today's review.

Changes had already been made to the council's internal procedures which meant a similar event should not arise in future.

"The focus for us has continued to be on restoring the drinking water supply for the communities but as we previously indicated, following the ministry's review, we'll conduct our own looking at our internal processes. The terms of reference for that work will come to council for consideration on the 25th of May," he said.

Without pre-empting the findings of that review, Hawkins conceded that the council could have better handled some aspects of the scare.

"It's hard to argue that the delays in the reporting over summer weren't unhelpful," he said.

"There's not a lot that can be said around that and the cause of those ... have already been addressed, but we need to look at all of our processes particularly in the lead up to that.

"There's been a lot for us to learn and the direction we've been provided today is helpful."

There was no timeframe for the council's review to be completed, but Hawkins said he hoped it would be done "sooner rather than later, but again you don't want to rush these things when they are as important as this is".

He reiterated his thanks for the people of East Otago for their patience and understanding.

The review made 12 recommendations for the Director-General of Health and Taumata Arowai.

The full report:

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