Otago residents frustrated they still can't drink tap water due to high lead levels

Residents in two East Otago towns are frustrated they do not know when they can drink water out of the tap, not from a tanker.

Yesterday, people in Waikouaiti and Karitane were told to stop drinking, cooking and preparing food using tap water due to high levels of lead.

The council said yesterday that the levels were discovered in mid-December but the alert went to a Dunedin City Council staff member who was on holiday and they weren't picked up until the new year. Today, it said the first time elevated levels of lead were recorded was in August, 2020.

While many are resigned to their new water collection, frustration and anger are bubbling away over communication delays that left residents in the dark for weeks.

Waikouaiti residents started gathering just after the crack of dawn to start filling up containers at the water tanker outside their local pub.

While some were pragmatic, others said it was another slight against their coastal community.

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous said the community felt neglected.

"I think it's disgusting really. If they actually came out and looked at Waikouaiti and the condition of the place. There's been nothing done since before Covid."

Beano's Bakery co-owner Cambell Gibbons said it was a sobering moment when their health officer came in yesterday.

They had just finished making pastry, breads and other goods.

"As soon as we got told, maybe 1pm, that's when we cut it all off and didn't use anything else, and went straight to bottle. There's a 99 percent chance that it is all fine and dandy. But it's just one of those things. We don't have to throw anything we just made out, but we're not going to be using any water from the area for the foreseeable."

The bakery had to throw out all of its water stored for their breads in the cool room and now rely solely on bottled water.

"The business partners live in Palmerston which their water is all fine. So it was kind of a bucket run and got them to do a big haul from their place down here, we can still function. Anything from braising the chickens, or boiling the eggs everything has to be bottled now. It definitely makes it a challenge."

Waikouaiti School principal Mark Edwards said it was a big surprise to find out about the lead levels after their first day back with more than 90 pupils.

The school has been given two 20 litre tanks for each classroom and the bubblers have been cordoned off.

"Most of the children I spoke to had brought water, and their parents had been able to get to the refilling tankers and been able to supply their children with fresh water. A lot of our children are rural, and I just heard a parent say she'd never been so thankful to be on rainwater tanks. Usually, it's not a good thing to be on, but at this stage, it's a bit of a luxury."

Further south in Karitane, one resident said the council should have acted and told people as soon as they got the results.

"Huge concerns about the process. I don't have any problems with having to get my drinking water from a tanker for a while, but I am extremely concerned about the length of time for anything to actually happen."

She was concerned about the health impacts for her community.

"I think they should just sharpen up their act. It's massive incompetence. It's dangerous incompetence. We don't really know how many of us have been affected by using this water. We don't know how long it's been going on for. We don't know what the present levels are. So there are a lot of questions."

Traffic signs are posted outside both communities, warning them not to drink the water.

'I hope they identify the problem and correct it' - Karitane local

Bob has been living in Karitane for about seven years and said residents have drip-fed tanks hooked up to the main reservoir.

He wants to know how the council will deal with the lead in their individual tanks.

Bob said he did not want heads to roll - he wanted answers.

"There's a problem in this type of thing, is that people start looking for somebody to take responsibility or become a scapegoat and I hope that's not the exercise. I hope they do identify the problem and where it is and correct it."

East Otago Health practice manager Jane Roberts said about 16 people have asked for blood tests for lead today, including two people with young children.

"One with a very young baby, a week old baby. So mum is in the last trimester drinking away the water down in Waikouaiti. Now the baby's a week old. She's had no symptoms. We're going to test mum just to see what her levels return and then decide with our clinical team what we're going to do to help her if they are raised."

She said they should have the results back in 48 hours.

The Dunedin City Council, in a statement, said the first test showing elevated lead levels in Waikouaiti was received in August last year.

Council's infrastructure services general manager Simon Drew said six samples out of 90 taken over the past six months returned results with elevated levels of lead.