Govt water contamination inquiry terms released

Govt water contamination inquiry terms released

The response of local and central government to Havelock North's water contamination will be heavily scrutinised in an independent inquiry - the draft terms of which were released on Monday.

More than 4000 people in the area were affected by a gastro bug caused by campylobacter since in just over a week.

While there are still a number of residents who are sick, doctors report fewer people coming down with the illness, which is characterised by vomiting and diarrhoea.

The town's water supply has been chlorinated but the Hawke's Bay District Health Board is still warning residents to boil the chlorinated water as it could have cryptosporidium and giardia, which can also cause illness.

On Monday, Cabinet approved an inquiry into how the contamination happened and how the local and central government agencies reacted.

"It is important that New Zealanders have confidence in the quality of our drinking water, and the independent inquiry will ensure we have a clear understanding of what happened in Havelock North," says Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

"The terms of reference are very wide and will include any lessons and improvements that can be made in the management of the water supply network in Havelock North and, more broadly, across New Zealand."

No one has yet been appointed to lead the inquiry, but Cabinet will consider who it will be in the coming weeks.

Prime Minister John Key says the final terms will be in place once the inquiry head is appointed.

Intensive dairy farming has been pointed to as a possible cause of the E. coli outbreak, but Mr Key says the terms of reference won't specifically look at that claim.

"I think it's important it gets out and does its best to identify what caused the problem, not some particular people who might pushing a particular perspective they have or a barrow they might have pushed for a long time," Mr Key said at his post-Cabinet news conference.

"It's important we get to the facts of what caused the problem."

He said Cabinet decided against having two parts to the inquiry, but he believed the terms of reference were wide enough.

"Ultimately if it makes some recommendations to the Government about changes that are required, then obviously Government will listen to that.

"While there has been some intensification in farming in New Zealand without doubt in recent time, that's been happening for a long period of time - we haven't seen these issues somewhere else."

The Green Party says the inquiry is a wasted opportunity to look at the effects of land use on drinking water.

"The inquiry should have two parts; one to look at the immediate problem in Havelock North, and another to look at how land use and water management contributes to E. coli and waterborne disease contamination," water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty says.

She accused the Government of "avoiding looking at the real causes of pollution".

"The type of land use in a community, for example agriculture, industrial or urban, affects the cleanliness of water in underground aquifers and bores – so we need the inquiry to take these activities into account."

The party says similar incidents have happened across the country in recent years including Patea, Hanmer Springs and Christchurch. 

Mr Key said civil or criminal charges could be laid in respect of the contamination, considering the death of a woman could possibly be linked to the outbreak.

He assured residents would get answers "as quickly as we can" about what caused the contamination.

Mr Key believed Havelock North residents would "much rather" he establish the inquiry than visit the affected area.

"Me wandering around in itself isn't going to do much."

Affected businesses have already been offered tax relief.

Govt water contamination Draft Terms of Reference