Havelock North water crisis - one year on

By Nicki Harper, Ruby Harfield, Nicki Harper

Brookvale bore 1 was closed earlier this year following the Havelock North water crisis. Photo/File
Brookvale bore 1 was closed earlier this year following the Havelock North water crisis. Photo/File

One year ago today Havelock North was put in the spotlight for an outbreak of gastroenteritis that affected more than a third of the village's population and claimed three lives.

On August 12, 2016, health authorities became aware of a high number of people with the bug in what turned out to be a campylobactor contamination in the Havelock North drinking-water supply.

The outbreak caused more than 5000 residents to fall ill and was linked to the deaths of three elderly people.

It also caused Havelock North businesses to suffer financially, cost local agencies nearly $4m and brought the safety of drinking water into the spotlight nationally with a government inquiry being held.

Since the outbreak Hastings District Council started chlorinating the Havelock North and Hastings water supplies, which, in turn, created a debate about chlorine which is still ongoing.

Some people have argued that chlorination has its own risks as well as a bad taste and smell while scientists have claimed that water chlorination is vital and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

Many people who fell ill during the outbreak are still suffering the effects today with some developing autoimmune disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, reactive arthritis and lactose-intolerance.

A number of them still cannot drink the water from their tap because even though it is now safe their weak stomachs cannot handle the added chlorination.

Just this week it was announced that a fund had been set up by Hastings District and Hawke's Bay Regional councils to help victims of the crisis.

Applications opened for the fund yesterday, which had $100,000 contributed from each council, to support people who had been impacted financially through suffering serious long-term illness lasting longer than six months.

Hastings District Council acting mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said the victims have council's "heart-felt sympathies" and steps had been taken to ensure nothing like this occurred again.

"People in our community suffered in a number of ways, through the initial illness and some contracting on-going health issues."

Since the contamination Hastings District Council has implemented a Water Supply Strategy, released last week, with plans to investigate new water sources, the installation of a new water main between Hastings and Havelock North, the permanent closing of the Brookvale bore field and treatment facilities across all water sources.

Other steps taken by council to address water issues included significantly increasing the range and frequency of testing across all supplies, employing the services of national and international water experts to help council with its decision-making and review processes, collaborating on a joint working group on water with representatives from councils and health authorities put together to oversee water supply, and fitting a full treatment plant to Brookvale Bore 3.

There have also been measures taken to lift the bore heads above ground level, install additional back-up power sources, setting aside $12 million to pay for improvements and signing up to a high-level governance group to oversee work of the joint working group.

The final day of the Havelock North Stage 2 water inquiry hearings wrapped up this week with the issue of how long Hastings' water supply would continue to be chlorinated being raised.

Taking the stand to update the inquiry panel on the work the Hastings council had done since the inquiry's Stage 1 findings, chief executive Ross McLeod was asked whether he thought it was prudent to continue chlorinating the supply into the future.

Mr McLeod said that from an operator and technical perspective that was the preference and the strong advice that would be given to Hastings councillors.

"Until we have other treatment mechanisms in place we will use chlorine then we will look at how the regulatory framework changes but for the foreseeable future chlorine will stay in place."

Inquiry panel member Anthony Wilson said a commitment to chlorination was the one thing missing from the council's new long-term drinking water supply strategy.

"I don't know how it is going to be possible for you to design treatment plants unless you know if you are going to have chlorine.

"You will need a different configuration depending on whether you are going to have chlorine or not and there are huge price differences.

"You need to ask your team how you are going to make investment recommendations unless they know if chlorine is going to be part of the picture - a decision needs to be made."

Mr McLeod said that at a technical level a strong recommendation would be made to the council for chlorine to be part of the system.

"The governors will be having a discussion with the community about the issue of chlorination and that will be framed by what comes out of this inquiry and whatever policy or regulatory changes are made."

Mr Wilson also warned about the ongoing issues with power cuts and potential for contamination from backflow, in light of the water being cut off in Flaxmere this week due to a power surge.

"Every time the power goes off the backflow goes through the roof - at the moment you have chlorine which reduces the risk - you were lucky this week.

"My concern is some of those issues are not easy to articulate to the community which in many cases is in denial."

The inquiry heard this week that aside from outbreaks, there was a consistent, low level of water contamination across the country.

Ministry of Health figures from 2009 to 2015/16 showed there were still 759,000 people (20 per cent of the serviced population) being supplied water that was not demonstrably safe to drink.

Of those, 92,000 were at risk of bacterial infection, 681,000 of protozoal infection and 59,000 at risk from the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals.

The inquiry also heard that New Zealand's compliance with drinking water standards was poor compared to the United Kingdom and European countries, with 10 times the rate of transgressions of water quality.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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