Lead contamination: Health concerns and questions to be raised at public meeting

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The Dunedin City Council will front at tonight’s public meeting on the high levels of lead found in two east Otago towns’ water supply.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins during a City Council meeting. Deputy mayor Christine Garey in the foreground.

Mayor Aaron Hawkins Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Residents of Waikouaiti and Karitane are expected to pack tonight’s meeting at the East Otago Events Centre, after it was revealed on Tuesday elevated lead levels have been detected in their drinking water – a problem first discovered almost six months ago.

Mayor Aaron Hawkins cast down over whether the council would have any role at the meeting after last night posting on Facebook that Public Health South had “specifically asked us (DCC) to stay away from the meeting so that they can focus on the public health issues”.

Soon after, he edited his comments and they have now been removed from Facebook entirely.

This afternoon, the council said it would be represented at the meeting with Hawkins attending.

“The focus of the meeting will be on public health, however the DCC will also be represented,” the council said in a statement.

“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
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“They will be available to answer people’s questions and advise on the next steps as Public Health South manage this situation from a health perspective.

“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.”

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins' Facebook messages about a public meeting were edited to say the council would be present.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins’ Facebook messages about a public meeting were edited to say the council would be present. Photo: Facebook / Aaron Hawkins

The mayor’s Facebook comments mark the latest communication misstep from the council after it was revealed yesterday councillors, including Hawkins, and elected representatives for the Waikouaiti and Karitane area were only informed of the lead issue in the hours before the information was made public on Tuesday.

The council’s chief executive, Sandy Graham, also only found about the problem this week.

Six of 90 tests over the last six months showed elevated lead levels with the highest reading almost 40 times the acceptable level.

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The council also erred on that front, previously telling RNZ the highest reading was only four times the acceptable level.

Hawkins told RNZ during an interview yesterday that he would have expected to have known earlier about the concerning lead levels, but internal processes had already changed so a similar situation would not come as a bolt out of the blue in future.

Containers for water near a tanker in Waikouaiti where high lead levels were discovered in the water supply.

Containers for water near a tanker in Waikouaiti where high lead levels were discovered in the water supply. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

When asked why the council waited so long to go public with what the tests were showing, he pointed the finger at Public Health South.

Hawkins said he had been told it followed advice from Public Health South.

“My understanding is our staff asked them whether we needed to or whether we should make the tests public, and their advice was that we didn’t need to,” he said.

That decision was made to prevent unnecessary alarm, he said.

In a statement, a Public Health South spokesperson said: “We had not advised that the community should be notified in relation to the high result in August as the normal pathway for a one-off exceedance is to undertake further testing”.

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However, it remained unclear whether Public Health South explicitly advised against telling the public as further calls on the matter went unanswered.

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