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POV: 100% Pure?

Point Of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

100% Pure?

Call me paranoid but after last week's ruling by the Privy Council, I'm installing a mega microfilter on my tap water and importing Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash, the new North American spray for food obsessives that removes chemical residues from fresh produce.

But perhaps I'm overreacting. After all the Privy Council is an august institution, unbiased and learned in all it's dealings and if they say New Zealand's water is fit to drink, then it must be. Right?

Well not according to John and Mary Hamilton. Almost unwittingly the Hamilton's have become New Zealand's pre-eminent water quality campaigners, albeit on the losing side of every court in the land, including the Privy Council.

But for the Hamilton's, losing their legal battles, their livelihoods, their home and their land does not make them losers. If anything it adds weight to their claims of high level interference in the supply of our water and indifference, if not collusion on the part of Watercare Services Ltd in regard to dubious water quality standards, in their area, and possibly in other parts of the country.

On the surface it seems a simple enough case. In 1995 the Hamilton's had a flourishing, award winning cherry tomato business. Until one morning they found their prime crop dead on the vine. After extensive investigation ruled out every other possibility they zeroed in on their water supplied by Papakura District Council and Watercare Services.

Further investigation, including an examination of Watercare's own records showed the damage was consistent with hormonal herbicide contamination. The records also revealed the presence of the hormonal herbicide Triclopyr but also a cocktail of chemicals such as 2,4D, 245,T and MCPA and showed a variety of herbicides had been present in the water for several years.

To John Hamilton, a ruddy-faced farmer who looks like he would be very uncomfortable in a suit, it seemed a readily solvable situation. Using their personal circumstances and the results of Watercare's own water analysis the Hamilton's would take town water supplier Papakura District Council and Watercare to court as a test case. They would prove scientifically the water Papakura ratepayers - and possibly ratepayers in other parts of the country - were drinking was contaminated with hormonal herbicides. All this, they reasoned, would alert people to the reality of what we're actually drinking and incensed by this and the fact that the herbicide levels were within legal limits would prompt ordinary New Zealanders to join them in their crusade.

But the Hamilton's had never played politics before and they'd never taken on a corporation like Watercare, with its unlimited legal budget and a market to protect. And they didn't count on the fact that actual compliance with the drinking water standards in New Zealand is not mandatory in legislation. And they really didn't understand what it meant in law that while the levels of toxic chemicals they found in their water was enough to kill an entire glasshouse of tomatoes it was still a legally acceptable contamination.

And they didn't count on going the whole journey alone. What started out as a group action, with a number of other locals whose crops were also destroyed soon became a solo mission as various offers of financial assistance to take on Watercare were withdrawn when the company threatened to sue for costs if it won.

From Watercare's perspective it was also a simple situation. If the Hamilton's had special needs or were using the town supply in specific ways other than for drinking then they should treat the water to suit their needs. And as to the level of herbicides? Water Care Services response was unequivocal: the level of pesticides was well with in the legal level for drinking water in New Zealand! And they've not wavered from that point, using it as their winning formula all the way to the Privy Council decision.

But even that decision is controversial with their lordships split down the middle, an almost unheard of situation at the Privy Council. And the casting vote that could have bought New Zealand's water standards into the spotlight, perhaps even forced a reconsideration of the standards not to mention saved the Hamilton's from bankruptcy? It was cast by New Zealand judge Sir Kenneth Keith.

John Hamilton, so upbeat despite his looming bankruptcy that you begin to wonder if they put something else in his water, says that despite the loss the case has highlighted worldwide that it's okay in New Zealand to have herbicide in drinking water at levels that kill plants. He adds that the case has also highlighted the fact that our drinking water has quantities of many other contaminants that do not have to be tested for.

But that was not news to the Hamilton's. In their losing 1999 Court of Appeal case Justice Gault found against the couple on the grounds that it was unrealistic to expect drinking water to be completely free of pesticides. That court also found it acceptable that New Zealand water supplies were likely to have hormonal herbicides, to levels, which might damage some crops.

To Mark Ford, the chief executive of Watercare Services the whole Hamilton saga must seem like a bad dream. He says the Privy Council decision is confirmation his company produces high quality water, which meets New Zealand drinking standards. He also claims the moral high ground saying Watercare fought the Hamilton's to uphold important principals; to save ratepayers from expensive damages and to reassure the public that they have nothing to fear from his company's product.

But what Mr. Ford doesn't mention is the vast sums Watercare has spent on legal fees. And it seems to me the only thing Watercare is protecting ratepayers from is the knowledge that New Zealand's water standards are so compromised that providing water toxic enough to kill an entire glass house of tomatoes is an acceptable business practice. But then Watercare's mission statement says nothing about working for the public good or health so I'd say the only real principal Mr. Ford and Watercare were fighting for was the right to make a profit.

So are the Hamilton's crackpots and troublemakers so virulent that a large corporation used all its might to silence them? You'll have to make your our own judgment on that.

But me, being the good capitalist I am, I'm buying shares in a water filter company. I'm picking they'll soon be the next big thing and I wouldn't be surprised if Sir Kenneth Keith and Mark Ford already have tidy bundles of their own.

And one things for sure; it's time New Zealand changed it's 100% Pure international marketing campaign. We could be had up for false advertising.

Footnote: The courts awarded Watercare Services the mortgage over John and Mary Hamilton's remaining properties in lieu of their ability to pay court costs. John Hamilton says they've begun packing.


© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, March 2002

For a full summary of the Privy Council finding go to:

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