Inquiry panel finds failings by councils in Havelock North gastro inquiry

Retired Court of Appeal judge Lyn Stevens QC is chair of the Havelock North water contamination inquiry panel.
CHRIS SKELTON

Retired Court of Appeal judge Lyn Stevens QC is chair of the Havelock North water contamination inquiry panel.

Two Hawke's Bay councils copped harsh criticism in a report on the Havelock North gastro outbreak.

The panel looking into last year's outbreak made the first stage of its findings public at Hastings District Court on Wednesday.

It identified several failings by the Hastings District Council, Hawke's Bay Regional Council and drinking water assessors.

The inquiry board released its report in the Hastings District Court on Wednesday.
JOHN COWPLAND/ FAIRFAX NZ

The inquiry board released its report in the Hastings District Court on Wednesday.

The outbreak in August last year made some 5500 of the town's 14,000 residents ill with campylobacteriosis. It put 45 in hospital and has been linked to three deaths.

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The contamination was later found to have entered the town's drinking water bores.

The gastro outbreak made more than 5000 people ill and caused numerous Havelock North businesses to close for days.
MARTY SHARPE/ FAIRFAX NZ

The gastro outbreak made more than 5000 people ill and caused numerous Havelock North businesses to close for days.

Panel chair Lyn Stevens QC said the outbreak "shook public confidence" in this fundamental service of providing safe drinking water and it raised "serious questions" about the safety and security of New Zealand's drinking water.

The district and regional councils did not directly cause the outbreak, but their "dysfunctional relationship" and their lack of co-operation resulted in a number of missed opportunities that may have prevented it from occurring.

The regional council failed to meet its responsibility to act as the guardian of the aquifers under the Heretaunga Plains, he said.

Knowledge and awareness of aquifer and contamination risks near Brookvale Rd fell below "required standards" and it failed to take effective steps to assess the risk, including the management of the many uncapped or disused bores in the vicinity, and the monitoring of the district council's resource consent to take the water.

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The district council "failed to embrace or implement the high standard of care required of a public drinking-water supplier", particularly in light of a similar outbreak in the district in 1998, from which it appeared to have learned nothing.

The council's mid-level managers especially failed, Stevens said. They delegated tasks but did not adequately supervise or ensure implementation of requirements. This led to unacceptable delays in developing the council's water safety plan which would have been "fundamental in addressing the risks of the outbreak".

Drinking Water Assessors were also at fault, with Stevens finding they were "too hands off" in applying the drinking water standards.

They should have been stricter in requiring the district council to comply with responsibilities with its water safety plan, he said.

"They failed to address the [council] sufficiently about the lack of risk assessment and the link between the bores and the nearby pond."

The regional council should never have launched the prosecution of the district council, which it later withdrew, Stevens said.

The prosecution was "bound to have failed" and $450,000 the regional council spent on investigating the vase "could have been more wisely spent on investigating the status of the aquifer".

Regional council chair Rex Graham accepted the findings. His council could have done a number of things better and the relationship between the two councils was now much better, he said.

Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule also accepted the findings and said it was particularly disappointing that the council had not made any improvements following the 1998 event. A full review would take place.

Yule and council chief executive Ross McLeod would not discuss if any action may take place with staff, but McLeod said he had no intention of resigning.

Hearings for Stage 2 will be held later this year. This will address systemic issues and provide recommendations about managing water supply across New Zealand.

 - Stuff

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