According to the East Otago water source lead survey, authorities were not informed.

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According to a survey, health officials were not notified of many alarming lead levels in East Otago’s water system last year.

After occasional fluctuations in the amount of lead in the area’s drinking water were observed in July last year, a do not drink warning remains in place in Waikouaiti, Karitane, and Hawksbury Village.

Today, a study evaluating the health response was published.

“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.

Although Public Health South was notified of an increase in lead levels on July 31, 2020, they were not notified of many others until January of this year.

The Ministry of Health was not made aware of the concerning lead levels until 31 January, Dunedin City Council’s chief executive Sandy Graham was not made aware until 1 February, and Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins was only made aware of the issue in the hours before the do not drink alert on 2 February.

After the public was made aware of the problem and a do not drink warning was issued, a blood-lead content monitoring campaign launched on February 4th.

“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.”

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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.

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“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

When the terms of reference for the Dunedin City Council’s treatment of the East Otago lead scare are determined next month, the investigation will begin.

Mayor Aaron Hawkins of Dunedin said he was pleased with the conclusions of today’s study.

Changes has since been introduced to the council’s operational processes, ensuring that a similar incident will not occur in the 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.

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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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