Christchurch’s recently chlorinated water is leaving a bad taste in residents’ mouths, but it’s an alleged conflict that’s got former mayor Garry Moore spitting. David Williams reports.

A water manager at the Christchurch City Council, which has recently chlorinated its drinking water, is also a board member of industry lobby group Water New Zealand, prompting accusations of a conflict of interest.

The City Council’s chief executive defends the move, saying other employees from other councils are board members.

Christchurch’s drinking water has been chlorinated since March, after engineering assessments suggested some below-ground drinking water well-heads may not be sufficiently sealed, leaving them susceptible to groundwater contamination, especially after heavy rain.

It reflects a stricter interpretation of drinking water standards by public health authorities in the wake of Havelock North’s water contamination, which may lead to a huge shake-up in the way water services are structured, owned and funded.

Christchurch’s water supply status was changed to “unsecure” just before Christmas last year, and councillors were advised to treat its supply while the well-heads were upgraded – despite the Council’s contention of robust monitoring and a good history of providing clean water.

Advice leading to the City Council’s decision to chlorinate was prepared by a range of staff, managers and contractors – including the Council’s head of three waters and waste John Mackie, who was elected to Water NZ’s board in September last year.

Water NZ is an industry association and lobby group, to which almost all councils belong. Since the Havelock North incident in August 2016, it has advocated for councils to chlorinate drinking water. The Havelock North drinking water inquiry recommended last year the Government force councils to treat water supplies.

Pushing an agenda

Garry Moore, who was Christchurch’s mayor between 1998 and 2007, says Mackie is pushing to his employer Water NZ’s agenda, which is for mandatory chlorination.

Of course, Moore says, councils have to provide clean drinking water. But he compares the Christchurch chlorination decision to the panic over meth testing – a scare campaign waged by an industry that stood to gain from it. Health authorities have, rightly, been pursuing the Council to fix its well-heads, he says, but the chlorination was “completely unnecessary”.

It’s a case of follow the money, Moore says. “The money’s in the chlorine, it’s in the chemicals, it’s in the gear that the councils have to have is big money – hundreds of millions of dollars around New Zealand.”

Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore. Photo: David Williams

Chlorination is costing Christchurch’s council $20,000 a month, on top of $600,000 in capital costs. As The Press newspaper pointed out last weekend, Water NZ member Ixom won Christchurch’s chlorination contract, while infrastructure consultant Beca, another member, found problems with the city’s well-heads.

Water NZ chief executive John Pfahlert says its position that all water supplies should be chlorinated was taken after considering international evidence and consulting water service managers at councils around the country, as well as its other members. Because his organisation is partially funded by councils, it was effectively taking that view on their behalf, he says.

“I personally wrote to every single chief executive of every council in New Zealand before we presented our evidence to the drinking water inquiry and told them that this is what we want to do,” he says. “Not one single council chief executive came back and said that they disagreed with that position.”

“We’re just saying, look, if you want to take the risk of potentially infecting and/or killing people then carry on providing untreated water.” – John Pfahlert

Pfahlert doesn’t think Mackie has a conflict. “I’m seeing a guy who has been elected by the membership based on a particular set of skills and attributes that are recognised among his peers, he’s adopted a position along with the rest of the industry around chlorination and he’s promoting that view directly to his own employer.”

Water NZ has policies and procedures to allow members to declare a conflict – though Pfahlert can’t recall if he’s ever heard Mackie declare one.

Providing clean drinking water is a public health issue, Pfahlert points out. Water NZ wants the country to have world-class water supply systems.

“The fact that Christchurch has had a long history of supply without too many problems is not, in my view, a predictor that that will continue.”

He adds: “We’ve had all sorts of allegations made to us that we’re in the pockets of the companies trying to sell chlorine, or whatever it is, and we’re doing it because we love putting chemicals into water.

“But all we’re really doing as an association is to say there is recognised good engineering and management practices around this sort of stuff, and we’re just saying, look, if you want to take the risk of potentially infecting and/or killing people then carry on providing untreated water.”

Public safety the primary concern

City Council chief executive Karleen Edwards says Mackie’s board membership was handled by his line manager and the Council is aware of that position and a personal submission he made to the Havelock North inquiry.

“Other councils’ employees are also on the board, as well as being members.”

Water NZ was not involved in the decision to chlorinate, Edwards says. “Our primary concern is public safety and the continued provision of safe drinking water.”

Since January, the City Council says it has done minor remedial work on 22 of its 53 pump stations thought to have the highest risk of contamination. Edwards: “While these works reduce the risk of contamination, they are not sufficient to meet the new, stricter interpretation of the standards for well-head security.”

The Council has a “future work programme”, she says, “to determine the best approach to allow us to return to an unchlorinated water supply”. Four new pump stations, with 11 above-ground well-heads, are now secure and are not being chlorinated.

(Former mayor Moore says for years health authorities have warned the City Council of problems with their below-ground well-heads in areas with shallow drinking water wells and the problem has appeared because of “years of ineptitude, mismanagement and neglect”.)

Pressure to treat water

The City Council’s controversial chlorination decision was made after months of assessments sparked by the inquiry into the Havelock North scandal, which left 5500 people ill and three dead. Last May, Christchurch’s Council asked its maintenance contractor Citycare to investigate below-ground well-heads, which was raised by the inquiry as a potential contamination source. A well-head repair and improvement programme was approved in August.

In early December, the Havelock North inquiry released stage two of its findings, which Health Minister David Clark said raised “serious concerns about oversight and infrastructure”.

Then, five days before Christmas, Director-General of Health Chai Chuah wrote to all drinking water suppliers saying they should consider – “without delay” – treating water supplies. Two days later, on December 22, Canterbury’s water assessor, Judy Williamson, said the city’s drinking water supply no longer met national standards and were now considered “unsecure” – pointing to the well-head inspections.

In the face of advice to chlorinate from Williamson and medical officer of health Alistair Humphrey, the council had to act. (Humphrey reassured the public their drinking water was safe but there was a “slight risk” of contaminated water seeping into the groundwater.)

In January, Christchurch city councillors voted to chlorinate for up to 12 months. Treatment started in March.

But the foul taste and strong odour in some areas prompted a public backlash. Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel told radio station Newstalk ZB last month that the chlorine decision was one that “none of us wanted to make” and it hadn’t been properly communicated.

The Council has flushed its pipes to reduce chlorine levels and reduced the amount being added at some pump stations. Last week, the council’s strategic head of policy Helen Beaumont was appointed to a 12-month role to oversee improvements to the drinking water supply.

‘Burning platform’

Water NZ definitely has the ear of Government.

At a national water summit last month – partially organised by Water NZ – Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta thanked the industry lobby group for working in a “highly productive way” with the Department of Internal Affairs. Her speech signalled the Government is actively considering a Water NZ-championed idea of merging council water services into larger, jointly-owned entities.

Water NZ’s Pfahlert says it’s not a simple fix, considering there are “north of $50 billion of assets” involved, and any change of ownership risks stranding water assets and headaches over who pays for overheads.

His organisation has been warning councils about fundamental problems with the management of water services for at least 15 years. He’s unrepentant about pushing its agenda for better adherence to drinking water standards after Havelock North, calling it a “burning platform”.

“It’s an opportunity to say – not in an arrogant way, ‘I told you so’ – but pointing out the fact the reason that we have only about 20 percent of the communities that serve less than 500 people actually compliant with the drinking water standards.”

Providing clean drinking water goes to the heart of local government, Pfahlert says.

“As soon as any of the three waters [drinking water, wastewater and stormwater] fail, you know what happens? People like yourself are on the other end of the phone wanting to know, ‘How could this happen?’”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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