Editorial: The Italian job revisited

The trouble with things being out of sight, out of mind, is that they can leave you out of pocket.

Until very recently if you'd said "thin-walled Italian pipes" to an Invercargill ratepayer, they'd stare at you blankly thinking that whatever these were, they'd no doubt be expensive and stylish.

Yes and no, in this case.

When the city council first opted, starting 1958, to change from cast iron water mains to Italian-made asbestos concrete pipes, it was probably at a time when the new product was being touted as an altogether superior one.

So, based on what we trust was the best information available, down those Italian pipes went in our fair city.

If you happen to know exactly where, the council would be thrilled to hear from you because, frankly, it's rather in the dark.

Which is a pity, given the three recent, quite spectacular, failures that have made it clear there's a significant inner-city problem.

We still don't know the scale of it, because by the early 1960s, similar pipes were being manufactured in Australia and New Zealand and the council shifted to them.

With the not-especially-beneficial benefit of hindsight we might add that these ones had the same pressure rating but a much thicker wall. On the evidence so far, that was a good idea.

Awkwardly, the council doesn't have records of where, exactly, the Italian pipes were laid. Civic records don't reveal the country of origin.

The dates give some guidance, obviously, but the transition to the so-far-superior Anzac pipes is not clearly identified.

There's no denying that addressing this issue is a core council responsibility. It requires some speedy replacement work in Esk St and a broader project, potentially costing $5.3 million, further afield.

Displeasing. However, it's not a full-blown disaster because sooner or later the pipes would have needed replacing anyway. The council is unprepared because it was figuring on this happening in the 2020s, based on an expected 65- to 70-year lifespan.

Now some reprioritisation work is necessary. And perhaps a loan, rather than the rates-funding approach that the council has routinely used for mains maintenance.

What we still need is a sense of the real scale of the problem. That $5.3 million is a best estimate based on not a lot of information.

The council now faces the task of poring over its records for when pipes were laid and where failures have been recorded, looking for the patterns and then doing some testing.

This shouldn't be done at panic pitch, but briskly for all that. For one thing it's important to have answers before inner-city rejuvenation work is done up top. For another, further Italian eruptions might occur at any time.

Mayor Tim Shadbolt is talking about hitting up the suppliers for compensation.

Best to take that more as an expression of indignation than anything else. We'd all be highly impressed, but mightily surprised, if the Italian pipes came with an extraordinarily emphatic and long-lived guarantee from a supplier that is still out there, ready, willing and able to stand by its product.

The Southland Times