'Unacceptable' - PM on lead levels in East Otago

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken about lead levels in Waikouaiti and Karitane calling the situation "unacceptable".

Ms Ardern was asked about the situation while speaking to media at Waitangi this morning.

"Everyone should expect that their drinking water is safe."

This was the reason why the Government had done a significant amount of work on improving drinking water and the regulation associated with that.

"For those in Karitane, obviously what's happened there [is] unacceptable.

"We have a commitment that they will be provided with safe drinking water until it can be established what has happened with lead levels in that area."

Meanwhile, blood tests will be offered to Otago residents who drank water from lead-contaminated supplies as authorities scramble to contain a debacle.

The free tests next week are expected to help officials work out whether the Waikouaiti and Karitane communities north of Dunedin have experienced chronic exposure to lead.

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The response comes amid gaffes that have included an email to the Dunedin City Council remaining unopened for weeks, the council publicly understating a high lead reading and council chief executive Sandy Graham being out of the loop until this week.

Recent spikes in lead levels were unlikely to have created a risk of acute toxicity, but it was not impossible, particularly for young children, Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Susan Jack said.

Residents have been told not to drink the water since Tuesday, and Dr Jack has appealed for calm.

A public meeting will be held in Waikouaiti tonight amid growing anger about multiple bungles.

At the meeting, Southern DHB Medical Officer of Health Dr Susan Jack, and medical toxicologist University of Otago and National Poisons Centre Director Dr Adam Pomerleau, will discuss:

  •     Health impacts of lead exposure
  •     What they know about the possible exposure so far
  •     Lead level blood testing clinics for Waikouaiti and Karitane next week

Mayor of Dunedin Aaron Hawkins, Cr Jim O’Malley (the chairman of the DCC’s Infrastructure Services Committee), and Infrastructure Services General Manager Simon Drew will also be at the meeting.

Last night, the council conceded a lead reading from a sample taken in December was almost 40 times the acceptable limit.

Council staff had initially said the reading was about four times the limit.

Authorities did not grasp the lead limit had been exceeded by such an extent until this week, Dr Jack conceded.

But officials have so far stood by their assertion intermittent elevated lead levels recorded since August — six exceeded the limit — did not warrant a notice advising against drinking the water until Tuesday.

It had become clear at that point water at the source could be contaminated, after an elevated lead reading at the Waikouaiti raw water reservoir.

The source of the contamination is not known.

The city council used a helicopter on Wednesday to search for possible leads.

Two sites of interest were passed on to the Otago Regional Council but both were ruled out as sources of the elevated lead levels at the reservoir. 

It emerged yesterday Ms Graham did not know about elevated lead readings until this week.

That was despite her organisation receiving information about the lead readings since August and one in December that was particularly high.

The high reading from a December 8 sample — 0.39mg/L, almost 40 times the limit — happened to be one result that was sent to the city council on December 18, but was not noticed until January 7 as a staff member had been on leave.

The council’s communication problems were further exposed when Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins learnt during a radio interview last night the December reading was 10 times worse than the council had said.

Mr Hawkins conceded the council could have explained the issue better, but said fixing that would not have changed the public health response.

Mr Hawkins said he believed the error was a "misstatement" by a staff member that he repeated.

He apologised for getting that wrong.

The council had followed the advice of public health, he said.

"There will be plenty of time for a review of everything that has happened up until this point, and that will be true of not just the city council but of all authorities involved in this.

"But the people we would want to be involved in the review process are currently focused on trying to fix the problem."

Testing was stepped up from last August and contributed to the problem at the reservoir being identified.

Council 3 Waters group manager Tom Dyer said the council had tested more broadly for lead at water treatment plants in December and January and all results came back clear.

In adults, high levels of lead can cause symptoms such as mood changes, nausea, diarrhoea and memory impairment.

In children, it can lead to symptoms such as vomiting and difficulty sleeping.

The Ministry of Health was concerned about the spikes in lead readings, a spokeswoman said.
"As a precaution, public health officials have arranged for the Dunedin City Council to provide tankered water to residents until authorities are satisfied the drinking water supply is safe.

"We are working to urgently set up community screening so people who live in Waikouaiti and Karitane can access free blood tests."

East Otago Health practice manager Jane Roberts said the practice had been inundated with calls since Tuesday.

She estimated that since lunchtime on Wednesday, 20 to 25 people had been referred to Dunedin for testing of lead levels in blood.

Test results usually took up to a week but had been fast-tracked and would be returned within 48 hours, she was told.

One reason for the blood testing is because testing the water for lead has not been carried out regularly. It is expected to reveal whether a longer-term problem exists.

Ms Graham said the council and other bodies were dealing with unexplained, intermittent spikes and not a sustained period of elevated lead levels over a prolonged period.

She was first advised of elevated lead levels in the water late on Monday.

“I am understandably unhappy not to have known earlier, as I would have expected to have been fully briefed by DCC staff on an issue which potentially had community health implications," she said.

Being told the information would not have changed the council’s response, but "an issue of this significance should have been brought to me far sooner".

“At this stage, my focus is on ensuring drinking water supply is restored to the affected communities, but I will be following up internally at the earliest appropriate time.”

The public meeting will be held at the East Otago Events Centre in Waikouaiti from 7pm. — Additional reporting by Hamish MacLean and Emma Perry

grant.miller@odt.co.nz

 

 

Comments

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So the Mayor and his councilors will be at the meeting?

Not confirmed, according to RNZ.

ODT online editor: The story has been updated to say who will be attending the meeting tonight.

The elephant in the room & not spoken of.....historical & the current mining in the river catchment, get to the guts of the matter & check all the metals at the same time.
Why has there not been a large warning not to eat the shell fish etc down river or is that really scary to behold ?

Who mines the catchment and for what?

What do Aaron Hawkins and Boris Johnson have in common? They may be opposites politically but when it comes to competence they are like two peas in a pod. They should both resign immediately.

So the Mayor and the DCC have the same contempt for the decimal point in poisons in the drinking water tests, as they do for rates rises.
One would hope this would be the wake up call for voters to ensure we get a competent and a core task focused council.
History has a habit of repeating itself though and voters seem to be easily swayed by the glitter and bauble promises from the cool kids...

It's a Systems Failure, not ammunition for anti Council ideology. What they need are Geo Scientists on Council payroll.

And who is in charge of the systems? I will explain it to you, the council!!!

And who develops the system? Who monitors the system? Who maintains the system? We rely on the Council to deliver clean, safe drinking water. The "System" doesn't run itself. People develop and administer the system. No number of geo scientists on the council payroll will fix a "system" that is silo-ed and arse covering. So, yes, this IS ammunition, and it should be used to fire the people who allowed this "system" to potentially harm a whole lot of people.

Who designs the systems, who writes the scope for the work that uses the systems, who monitors that the systems are being followed, who checks that the systems are fit for purpose and are achieving the desired goal. In this case, a safe supply of drinking water.
Your dismissal of the lack of accountability is worrying, although not surprising.
I doubt others will be so partisan.

Councils have 3 main duties: water supply, sewerage processing and rubbish removal. Maybe instead of trying to be the national leaders in removing cars from public use, building bridges to nowhere and all the other crack pot the greens have been doing, just maybe they can concentrate on their base jobs for a few months. Maybe but highly unlikely.

Intermittent is dependent on testing. There is no knowledge of whether the levels where unacceptable in the periods between the tests which is quite possible and probable that the levels didn't stay stable between tests and spike for test days, from August until now. It is misleading to speak of only 6 tests being problematic - the time period between the tests results may have continued to be high or risen to be high and returned to normal and it seems council staff are not realizing the full potential implications when talking of only six tests recording concern. Open government and publish all the tests from August, there's the challenge to Council.

Oh my. This is what a silo-ed council, where everyone does only their little bit and then scuttles off covering their backsides, ends up delivering. When the risk managers are most concerned about the risk to the organisation, and not the risk to the health and wellbeing of the community, there is a problem. And we have a problem. From the CEO down, we should be seeing resignations. This is simply not good enough.

Its fine that there will be blood testing for lead but, there is more than one way to get lead into your system, testing at the a residential tap will show how much is present at each home, and finally is it organic lead or inorganic lead present in the samples.

It is lead which somehow has entered the water system between the water "cleaning" facility and water taps. If it were organic lead levels then testing at the processing facility would have found it - assuming they were looking.

People such as myself, and others, who regularly comment on this website and elsewhere about the DCC's conduct and competency, are often vilified and shouted down for our "negativity". However, for some time we have been raising questions about the competency of the council, both elected members and unelected career staffers. This has been based on our observations and personal interaction with the DCC. What has happened over this lead contamination shows that we naysayers have been right all along. The way the DCC has (mis)handled this scandal is a disgrace. The elected councillors need to resign en masse and fresh elections held. Then a purge of council managers must happen. The DCC is a moribund, failing organization desperately in need of revitalization and a fresh sense of its purpose. Last year, they had to chance to appoint "fresh blood" from outside but chose to replace the outgoing Chief Executive with an internal appointment. If the councillors will not do the decent thing, then central government needs to step in. What little confidence I had in the DCC has now gone completely. And so must the councillors and senior managers.

Despite some concerning tests coming in, the staff member did not put an email rule to forward to other staff or manager and the manager did not think about the test results emailed in and action any process in case of absence. And nobody saw fit to raise the matters with more senior or governance staff such and thus let the CEO know. It is no system of due diligence nor of staff taking responsibility. The DCC systems of process are obvious a mess and lets hope the new Mayor and new CEO are up to the task.

i thought our drinking water would be monitored everyday is it not? this is a staff issue ,which, just like the mudtanks, has been ignored. who is managing the managers of monitoring?

The DCC has got the communication part completely wrong, but the public health response part right. Also why do people have to bring in ideologies in such cases? This has very little to do with "removing cars from public use, building bridges to nowhere and all the other crack pot the greens have been doing..." as one commenter mentioned above. Why do a lot of people simply don't see right or wrong anymore, just left or right, green or otherwise etc?

There have been expensive water schemes foisted on communities that couldn't afford them and managed their own drinking water needs. On the other hand, when a water supply is "safe" everyone expects to be able to use it for drinking and cooking without doing their own filtering, boiling, or collecting from a better source. What happened at Karitane-Warrington is a shocker. A betrayal of trust, a slack as attitude to other people's health. His "Honour" Mayor Hawkins is out of his depth, flailing and dissembling. Not good enough. Great at talking up dots on the road but when it comes to anything important, pfft, more light weight than thistledown.

Can I suggest that DCC ask for or comment on quality control and quality assurance data from the analytical testing laboratory? There are cases like this involving heavy metal detections in water where the result is due to sporadic contamination that has occurred from equipment inside the lab. Although this is unlikely there are features of these results that are unusual enough for lab contamination to be a possibility. It is rare in an IANZ accredited laboratory but can still happen. The other check that should be being run is to ensure that some split samples are sent to two different accredited analytical laboratories (not only one), to ensure that the results are reproducable and consistent. In the media reporting I have not seen any information about whether the QA/QC and lab testing has in fact been verified in this way.

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