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Contamination close to disaster

A Martinborough resident takes fresh water from an emergency bladder during the town’s contamination incident. PHOTO/FILE

Hayley Gastmeier

Only luck prevented Martinborough’s water contamination incident earlier this year resulting in a disaster to match that of Havelock North in 2016 that made thousands ill and was linked to three deaths.

In a report into the incident, specialist water consultancy Lutra said “the seriousness of this incident cannot be overstated”.

“It is a matter of luck that this was not another Havelock North or a Walkerton.”

A campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North in August 2016 made more than 5000 people violently ill and has been linked to three deaths.

In 2000 in Walkerton, a Canadian community in Ontario, contamination of the water supply sickened more than 2000 people and resulted in six deaths.

E.coli was detected in the Martinborough water supply on January 30.

A boil water notice was introduced on February 1 and remained in place for three weeks.

An independent review into the event was publicly released by South Wairarapa District Council yesterday.

The council commissioned Lutra to prepare the report on the incident, which appears to have been caused by a power cut that stopped the ultraviolet [UV] disinfection system from working for about 15 hours.

In its report, Lutra said E.coli was an indicator organism that pointed to the presence of faecal matter.

“It indicates the likely presence of pathogenic bacteria and some strains of E.coli themselves can be deadly.

“E.coli was present in the Martinborough system for at least three days before a boil water notice was put in place.”

Lutra said the incident highlighted shortcomings in the design, operation and management of the Martinborough water supply system.

“The incident response and management was largely reactive and unplanned until Wellington Water became involved and provided a risk-based rationale to the decision-making process.”

The report said SWDC wanted to improve its performance.

The council has already committed to installing a manganese removal plant within the next year, at an estimated cost of $485,000.

This would enable fulltime chlorination of Martinborough’s water supply.

Martinborough is the only Wairarapa town that doesn’t chlorinate, because chlorine and manganese combining results in dirty coloured water.

Until the installation of the UV system in 2011, the town’s bore water was untreated.

Lutra said: “SWDC should adopt the six fundamental principles of drinking water safety for New Zealand” and consider implementing the corrective actions recommended in the report.

These cover such issues as ensuring a high standard of care, protection of source water, maintaining barriers to contamination, monitoring any change in water quality, and following a preventative risk management plan.

SWDC acting chief executive Jennie Mitchell said the council was taking the report findings seriously.

“Council will take on board the findings of the report, as well as feedback from the community from their perspective of the incident, and on what actions need to be taken to ensure safe drinking water for the future.”

Around 80 frustrated residents attended a public meeting on Monday night where a panel of experts from the council, Regional Public Health, Wellington Water and Lutra answered their questions.

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