Call for inquiry into Pioneer's lead-contaminated drinking water

CALL FOR INQUIRY: Jenny Bellinger and Lin Simpson pore over documents collected over their seven-year battle with TasWater. Picture: Frances Vinall
CALL FOR INQUIRY: Jenny Bellinger and Lin Simpson pore over documents collected over their seven-year battle with TasWater. Picture: Frances Vinall

A resident of the North-East Tasmanian town of Pioneer is fighting off a TasWater debt collector while battling health issues, which she believes could have been caused by lead-contaminated drinking water.

Lin Simpson is one of a group of residents calling for an inquiry into TasWater's supply of drinking water in the town, population 89, following contamination issues that are still not resolved.

In 2012, it was revealed the drinking water at Pioneer and other North-Eastern towns was contaminated with lead. All other towns were provided with a reticulated water supply except Pioneer, which was supplied with rainwater tanks. This year, it was discovered the water in some of the rainwater tanks also contained lead.

The residents are collecting signatures in a petition asking for a government inquiry, which McIntyre MLC Tania Rattray will present to the Legislative Council by November 15.

There is no substantiated evidence there is any link between the lead-contaminated water supplied by TasWater and health problems at Pioneer.

Macquarie University environmental scientist and lead expert Mark Taylor, who was one of the authors of a 2015 report on Pioneer, said lead only stayed in the bloodstream for 30 - 60 days, but could be deposited in the skeletal system and cause adverse health effects.

He said that as systematic blood testing did not occur when the lead contamination was discovered in 2012, it would not be possible to conclusively link health issues in the town with lead contamination.

"Levels of lead in water has been associated with elevated lead in blood, and elevated levels of lead in blood has been associated with adverse health effects in large studies," he said.

But residents want a methodical investigation into the matter, as well as how the issue has unfolded as a whole.

Lin Simpson.

Lin Simpson.

For Mrs Simpson, a former nurse, her health issues began when her body underwent an iron overload in 2012, a term for excess amounts of iron being deposited in the liver, heart and pancreas.

Then, this year, Mrs Simpson suffered two fainting episodes caused by heart problems - called a cardiovascular syncope - along with pain, nausea and vomiting, which her medical records attribute to her kidneys as a likely origin point.

Mrs Simpson wants to know if her kidney and heart problems were caused by contaminated drinking water and the corresponding stress.

In the meantime, she has refused to pay her water bill in protest, and TasWater has commissioned a debt collector to chase her for it.

With huge levels of lead, you can die from it. Medium levels, they'll get sick, and it might take quite a few years to get the full adverse effects, and at lower levels it might take quite a while to show the effects.

Dr Alison Bleaney

Jenny Bellinger, also a former nurse, is another resident collecting signatures for the petition. She said at the time the town found out about the contamination, she had a deteriorating skin infection.

"I was in and out of bath; three, four times a day, and of course all I was doing was reinfecting it," she said. "As soon as I found out [about the water contamination] I went to Scottsdale and it got better straight away."

The US Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer agree that lead is probably cancer-causing in humans.

Carmel Luck and her husband Mick lived at Pioneer from 2006 to 2016, and have both suffered cancer.

"We still don't know if it's exposure to water," she said.

"We don't know how much effect it's had on our health. It's hard to pin it down to water, it's hard to pin it down to just one cause. There definitely needs to be some sort of inquiry.

"The last time I contacted TasWater, they just told me that I wasn't a customer anymore [after they moved away and rented out their property].

"To read their customer newsletter, about how clean and wonderful everything is ... I don't read it anymore. I mean, you've got to look after your blood pressure."

Dr Alison Bleaney OBE is a former North-Eastern general practitioner, a member of the National Toxics Network with a special interest in drinking water, and water advocate.

In 2010, her research led to an independent panel investigating planted trees depositing toxins in the George River at St Helens, which were found to be at a level not harmful to humans.

She said the science was indisputable that lead is a neurotoxin and an endocrine disruptor, and that even though it only shows up in the bloodstream for a matter of months, could cause delayed health impacts after consumption.

"With huge levels of lead, you can die from it," she said.

"Medium levels, they'll get sick, and it might take quite a few years to get the full adverse effects, and at lower levels it might take quite a while to show the effects. With heavy metals there can be increased instances of cancer. There are many adverse effects of lead, all of which should be entertained.

"For children, their IQ will be down, there's increased levels of autism, increased levels of violent behaviour - I mean, that's why they started taking lead out of petrol.

"So you put that all together, is there any problem with the lead that was and is in Pioneer? Well, I don't know. I don't know if [the Health Department] knows. I don't think there's been any investigation. And I am very perplexed as to why Public Health has not been more interested in ensuring the safety of the town."

TasWater chief executive Mike Brewster said: "Our advice to people who think that their water supply may be impacting their health has always been to seek the advice of appropriately qualified medical experts."

What's happened so far 

The water saga began when Pioneer residents were called to a meeting with Ben Lomond Water - as the water authority was called before it was incorporated into TasWater - in November 2012, where they were informed there were unsafe levels of lead and other contaminants in their drinking water.

A document seen by The Examiner shows that after water testing began in 2009, unsafe levels of lead were recorded at Pioneer in November 2010, February 2011, December 2011, and twice around September 2012, before the residents were informed in November 2012.

Mr Brewster said they were following the Health Department endorsed process at the time, which was to require two consecutive unsafe readings before instigating a public health alert.

A 2015 Macquarie University study found the lead in Pioneer's water came from "dilapidated drinking water infrastructure" supplied by TasWater - then Ben Lomond Water.

One of two suitcases of documents collected by Pioneer residents over seven years in relation to their drinking water.

One of two suitcases of documents collected by Pioneer residents over seven years in relation to their drinking water.

At the time, Pioneer's water supply came from Pioneer Dam, which was bulldozed by TasWater in 2013.

Pioneer Dam was fed by the Greenstone Creek, which was fed by overflow from the Frome Dam before the dam was cut off from Pioneer to be used in the Winneleah Irrigation Scheme around 2011.

The water travelled around the catchment through a series of pipes and water races - including at the decommissioned Moorina Power Station - which were installed in about 1909 and made partly using lead. When it reached the town the water travelled through aged PVC pipes, which also are thought to leach lead, before coming out through household plumbing systems that also leached various degrees of lead.

The study notes that at the time, there were 30 children living at Pioneer. Children are the most susceptible to health impacts of lead consumption.

After the November 2012 meeting where the lead contamination was made public, TasWater presented the residents of Pioneer in November 2013 with three options in a printed survey seen by The Examiner: to do nothing and continue charging Pioneer residents for water; to supply individual homes with a rainwater tank and continue the connection to the lead-contaminated water at a cost; or to supply water tanks and disconnect the contaminated water supply.

Treated water was not an option on the survey.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Mr Brewster said that: "Ben Lomond Water put that option [of treated water] forward in 2013, but it was rejected by a majority of the residents of Pioneer."

A TasWater spokesperson added that that on the basis of "extensive consultation" and a public meeting in April 2013, the company was led to believe rainwater tanks were the preferred option of the residents over treated water.

Out of the three options proposed, the residents voted for the rainwater tanks and agreed to pay for the lead-contaminated water to remain connected, in case of needing to fight fires.

But several other towns in the North-East were found to have contaminated water around the same time - Herrick, Ringarooma, Winneleah, Branxholm, and Legerwood - and Pioneer resident Jenny Bellinger said they were blindsided when all of the other towns were offered treated water by TasWater.

"The gut-wrenching part was when they put [water treatment] plants in at Herrick [six kilometres from Pioneer], and plants in everywhere else," she said.

Pioneer was the first town in the North-East with which TasWater negotiated a solution to the lead contamination. Mrs Simpson believes it was through the town that TasWater realised treated water was a more sensible solution than rainwater tanks.

"We were the guinea pigs and it [rainwater tanks] failed dismally," she said.

Lead still in the water 

Recent testing has shown that some Pioneer residents still have contaminated drinking water, due to TasWater's failure to test their roofs, guttering and downpipes for lead and other materials when it installed rainwater tanks.

At least 12 properties at Pioneer have paint on their roofs that contain lead or other metals in unsafe quantities.

Dean and Eva Mitchell bought their property after 2012, on the assumption the supplied rainwater tanks were an adequate source of drinking water.

"I have my grandson at my place, and until they cut off the tank water, I thought that water was fine," Mrs Mitchell said.

"I was drinking it, my grandson was drinking it. He's two years old. They tested it two or three times, and then rang us to say, don't touch the water, don't even boil it, don't touch it."

Lin Simpson, Jenny Bellinger, and Pioneer resident Tim Slade all say that TasWater said verbally in 2013 that they would replace relevant infrastructure when they installed the rainwater tanks, but this did not occur.

Residents also formally asked, via a 2013 letter and petition to both the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, that a condition of them agreeing to the rainwater tanks solution was that "Ben Lomond Water [as TasWater was then called] must repair roofs, gutters, downpipes etc to a standard suitable for collecting rainwater for drinking".

A rainwater tank graffitied with the words 'Pioneer or Ethiopia?' from the time when residents had to collect their water from a central tank from 2012 until the rainwater tanks were installed.

A rainwater tank graffitied with the words 'Pioneer or Ethiopia?' from the time when residents had to collect their water from a central tank from 2012 until the rainwater tanks were installed.

In a letter sent to Mr Brewster in December 2018, director of Public Health Mark Veitch said TasWater had a share in the responsibility for appropriate roofing.

"We note that roofs in poor condition and/or painted with older lead-based paint are inappropriate for collecting rainwater for drinking," he wrote.

"TasWater's submission in June 2017 to the Office of the Tasmanian Economic Regulator for the service replacement of Pioneer explicitly stated that the service replacement option would involve 'the provision of assistance to ensure roofing and guttering were adequate to supply water to the tank'.

"The submission also cited earlier discussions and agreement that service replacement would involve 'repair [of] roof, gutters and downpipes etc to a standard suitable for collecting rainwater for drinking'.

"I am concerned that this assistance appears not to have been provided."

In a separate letter this year to TasWater, Mr Slade referenced the Australian Guidance of Use of Rainwater Tanks, which states 'do not collect rainwater from roofs painted with products containing high lead concentrations'.

Tim Slade points to his rainwater tank, which he says was poorly installed.

Tim Slade points to his rainwater tank, which he says was poorly installed.

In response, TasWater chairman Stephen Gumley AO wrote to Mr Slade that the national guidance document was "not legally binding".

Mr Brewster said that despite that comment, the company was using the Australian Guidance document as a benchmark for the standard of rainwater tanks.

He said the company's predecessor, Ben Lomond Water, expressed to residents that roofs and gutters, "may be replaced to a reasonable extent in consultation with the property owner".

"More recently, in response to concerns raised by residents and stakeholders, we have initiated a roof inspection program," he said.

What next?

Pioneer residents are hoping for two outcomes from an inquiry, if the inquiry gets up.

The first is treated water.

"We should be able to turn on a bloody tap and have drinking water," Mrs Simpson said.

"It's simple, we just want treated water," Ms Bellinger said. "It's always been simple."

"This is one of the lowest socioeconomic areas in the state, and the idea that a customer of TasWater needs to have a working knowledge of the science of lead to be a customer is totally farcical," Mr Slade said.

"It is a low socioeconomic area, and we're being treated like the third world," Mrs Luck said.

"At the moment, we need another tank, and we're happy to do that ourselves - that's fine," Mrs Mitchell said. "But in the long term we need a reticulated water system. It's about the long-term future of Pioneer."

Providing reticulated water would cost TasWater an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 per connection at Pioneer, and residents would be charged normal water rates following the connection.

A rainwater tank installed by TasWater at Pioneer.

A rainwater tank installed by TasWater at Pioneer.

The costs of distributing the rainwater tanks was between $22,000 and $294,000 per connection, not including the costs of roof replacement, which will be about $21,000 per connection. That does not include pre-existing structural problems which TasWater considers the responsibility of the owner.

Residents also want TasWater to be independently investigated and, if appropriate, held accountable for its decisions over the course of the past nine years.

Mr Brewster said it was not for TasWater to decide if an inquiry was warranted.

"There is a long history around Pioneer's water going back to when council was responsible for the water supply and we understand that many people, not just those living in Pioneer, are interested in the issue," he said.

Mrs Simpson said she first moved to Pioneer seeking an idyllic, healthy, Tasmanian life - on the assumption she was moving into a house with a drinkable water supply.

"This was my dream home," she said. "This was my vision, my dream, and now it's just a building in a s--thole town with no water."

This story Is there something sinister in the water in this Tassie town? first appeared on The Examiner.