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Ministerial Statement: Havelock North – Parker and Finlayson

Ministerial Statement: Havelock North – Parker and Finlayson

Drinking-water Supplies—Contamination, Havelock North Inquiry Stage 2 Released



DAVID PARKER (Attorney-General): I wish to make a ministerial statement under Standing Order 356 in relation to the stage 2 report on the Havelock North drinking-water inquiry.

Can I begin by thanking the members of the inquiry panel: former Court of Appeal judge the Hon Lyn Stevens QC, former Director-General of Health Dr Karen Poutasi, and vastly experienced water engineer Anthony Wilson for the work that they have put into this detailed and thoughtful report.

Drinking water is the most basic determinant of daily health. The report tabled today highlights that the quality of drinking water in New Zealand is too often inadequate and that regulation and enforcement have both been poor. We must do better.

The report shows what most New Zealanders will see as shocking levels of non-compliance with current drinking-water standards and Government incompetence, especially at the Ministry of Health. The first report following the Havelock North drinking-water calamity catalogued how 5,500 people fell ill, causing over 100 people to be hospitalised; long-term, painful reactive arthritis; Guillain-Barré paralysis; and a contribution to the premature death of at least two people.

The first report found long-term incompetence at the Hastings District Council, poorly maintained bores, a history of bacterial infections that were ignored, and an inadequate understanding of the aquifers by both the district and regional council. No one at the district council resigned or properly accepted responsibility.
The second report shows that the Havelock North, whilst extreme, is not isolated. It catalogues serious failings by the Ministry of Health before and after Havelock North. It reports that, despite serious non-compliance by many water suppliers, the Ministry of Health have not issued one compliance notice or taken one enforcement action anywhere in New Zealand in the last five years. It shows unsafe drinking water is causing many tens of thousands, undoubtedly—perhaps up to 100,000 people, according to the inquiry—to fall ill from drinking water that comes out of their tap every year.

Eighty percent of New Zealanders live in areas where the inquiry has determined that water standards are adhered to. Large cities such as Auckland and Wellington city are well-serviced. People there have no need to be concerned by the findings of this report. The recommendations are focused on bringing other parts of New Zealand up to standard. The main problems are bacterial infections like campylobacter, protozoan infections causing cryptosporidium, viruses causing other gastroenteritis, and nitrate levels at excessive levels.

The report presents New Zealand and international evidence and supported recommendations that all reticulated water schemes should have their water treated. It rejects the view that regular testing of bore water is sufficient, noting that rain events, droughts, earthworks, and earthquakes all give rise to risks, meaning that even if testing is faultless, contaminated water can sometimes pass into the system for days prior to detection. It also explains that broken underground pipes and back-flow elsewhere in the pipe system mean that even if pure water leaves reservoirs, the water can be, and sometimes is, contaminated before it reaches taps.

In addition to recommending the mandatory treatment of water, the report recommends a new regulator, fewer water-suppliers—who should operate across larger regions in order to reduce costs and improve outcomes—and a licensing regime for drinking-water suppliers.

The report makes 51 detailed and specific recommendations. Some can be addressed quickly. The Government has today written to mayors and district health boards (DHBs) throughout New Zealand, asking them to check that the water they're supplying residents meets current standards, given the report finds significant non-compliance. Alongside this, the Minister of Health, Dr David Clark, will brief Cabinet before Christmas on the next steps, short and long term. Overall, this report raises serious concerns about the oversight and infrastructure.

I will just make a couple of quotes, in closing, from the report itself. It says: there's "widespread systemic failure among water suppliers to meet the high standards required"; "The industry has demonstrated that it is not capable of … improving when the standards are not met."; neither the Ministry of Health nor others have "shown an ability to call the industry to account."; "There is currently no adequate or effective enforcement of statutory obligations"; and the "water industry has over at least … five [years] experienced problems on multiple levels."

There are many other passages in the report, which I would recommend all members of Parliament read—and all mayors and all DHB chairs—before they take the steps that they need to make in order to better protect the public.

CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON (National): I join with Mr Parker in thanking the panel, the Hon Lyn Stevens, Dr Karen Poutasi, and Anthony Wilson, for their outstanding work. They have provided the thorough and robust report that I'd hoped for when I first approach them. They've served their country well.

The National Opposition welcomes the recommendations and agrees they will substantially improve the safety of drinking water in Havelock North and the rest of this country, which is why we as a Government went to the extent of setting up this inquiry. The previous Government carried out extensive work with Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) over water, infrastructure, and regulation. The National Infrastructure Plan had identified water infrastructure as the poorest performing sector across our infrastructure networks. As a result, we worked with LGNZ to get agreement on the best regulatory model, and spent a number of years on that. We agreed that this inquiry would be the vehicle to take that issue forward. The report highlights a quantum shift in how we should manage the state of our drinking water.

This is an issue that is above politics; it's about doing what's right for residents, and the new Government will have our support in any law changes required to implement the recommendations. The report addresses problems that have occurred over a number of years spanning both Governments, but the important thing is that the recommendations are adopted as quickly as possible. Local councils around New Zealand will need to sit up, as the Minister said, and take notice of this. It's highlighted that the Havelock North contamination showed a series of risks that have been subsequently found in many other parts of this country.

Once again, we sympathise with the people of Havelock North, who were so badly affected by the contamination, and especially to those who continue to deal with health problems related to the contamination. The incident severely affected the town's residents, and I'm pleased the inquiry has comprehensively identified the cause of the outbreak, as well as applied robust recommendations to prevent future outbreaks.

As the Minister said, part 23 of the report sets out a number of urgent and early recommendations, the most significant of which is the proposal that a dedicated drinking-water regulator should be established early and promptly. There are a number of other urgent recommendations, and, as I have said, the Opposition will support the Government on any law changes required to implement the recommendations.

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