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'Not ideal' — Dunedin mayor admits communication failure over contaminated water crisis

Dunedin’s mayor concedes mistakes were made in the early days of the lead crisis in East Otago last month.

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When officials held a meeting on the issue last night, it was the first in five weeks — prompting calls for accountability. Source: 1 NEWS

In early February, Karitāne, Waikouaiti and Hawksbury villages were warned not to drink from their water supply, after spikes of lead were detected in the water.

Speaking with Breakfast this morning, Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins agreed that communication could have been improved.

“We accept the way we communicated with those communities and the way we let people know what was going on, and what we were doing, was not ideal, and did add to what was already a confusing and anxious time for them. And that was unfortunate.”

As the crisis was unfolding, Richard and Rachel Olsen were bringing their newborn home to Waikouaiti.

“She was born on Thursday 28 January, out of hospital on Sunday [31 January]. And Tuesday [2 February], we just hit rock bottom with all of this really.”

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“They knew back in July about these spikes,” Richard Olsen told Breakfast about the area’s lead-contaminated water. “To not…be transparent, that’s what ticks people off.” Source: Breakfast

Residents were invited to a public meeting in Waikouaiti last night, where they were informed lead levels in the blood of 36 adults and two children were above the Ministry of Health’s ‘safe’ threshold.

But Richard’s demanding more accountability, particularly from the mayor.

“If you make a mistake, own it, move on, and people have that much more respect for you. But it's sort of just like passing the buck on to Public Health South.”

He says that buck’s kept being passed, in search of other sources of lead contamination.

“It seemed to be more focussed on other environmental factors that could cause lead to get into your system, so your occupation, and kids putting things in mouths, so I feel like it was sort of taken away from the water issue.”

Southern District Health Board’s Dr Susan Jack says investigations into most affected families has found other sources of lead contamination in their lives.

“It really has shone a light that in New Zealand we are exposed to lead through our normal life, through work or hobbies,” she said.

“Particularly children, because of their small body mass, they will absorb more lead than we will as adults.”

For now, the search for the source of the lead spikes in East Otago’s water supply continues – but it’s a search which could be fruitless.

“The reality is we may never know what the cause of the intermittent spikes have seen, and we are trying to get to the bottom of that, and investigating any number of potential causes,” Hawkins told Breakfast.

“We've been working really closely with Dunedin City Council, and they're leaving no stone unturned about what could possibly be causing these intermittent spikes,” Jack said.

A ‘do not drink’ order is still in place for tap water in the area, and will be in place for at least two months.