Monday, 21 November 2016

Hawkes Bay Regional Council Cuts Inquiry Off at Knees?

Update: Inquiry delayed (23/11/16)

Stuff are reporting that the inquiry has now been postponed until late January. It is really hard to understand why HBRC have taken this action. They may try to introduce evidence about how HDC's breach of its consent to take water lead to the gastro outbreak but the court will not be particularly interested. So the country is going to have to wait two extra months before we hear what went on. When we do finally assemble the tone of the inquiry will be adversarial diminishing the quality of the evidence provided.

The DomPost version of this article is not quite right when it says HBRC have responsibility for water quality in the region. That is only true for surface and groundwater. Once it has been extracted for treatment and reticulation it is the Ministry of Health who are the regulators. So this is a minor sideshow that simply puts off the full inquiry. And I, for one, was looking forward to hearing how well HBRC discharged its statutory duty to maintain and improve the quality of all water in the Tukituki catchment.

Last week Hawkes Bay Regional Council announced it had laid charges over consent breaches related to the contamination of drinking water in Havelock North. As I noted here it is likely the press coverage exaggerated the importance of this action. But now, having read HBRC's own press release, I am way more concerned that HBRC are undermining the inquiry due to get underway next week.

Cities are great inventions - for lots of reasons. But they only work if the public health problems that come from so many people living so close to each other are prevented. In practice this means vital things that we all take for granted today: supply of clean drinking water and removal of waste (sewer, stormwater, and rubbish).

We do a good job of those things in New Zealand with our standards - especially in waste disposal - rising considerably over the last 25 years. We really can take it for granted that the fundamentals of public health are well managed here. Or, at least, we could until the contamination of the Havelock North water supply.

This is why the government inquiry into the incident is so important. We really need to know whether there was a simple operational error or whether we have a systemic problem that could be a time-bomb for the whole country. When the inquiry is complete we may know whether somebody did something they shouldn't have or didn't do something they were supposed to do. This would satisfy the public appetite for "accountability" - i.e. someone to blame and demonise. That may happen but way more likely we will find weaknesses in our regulatory systems that allowed this event to occur. We may not have the pleasure of putting the guilty party in the stocks but it is way more important that the country learns lessons and finds ways to prevent an outbreak like this happening again.

Who are the parties to this investigation?

On the operational side Hastings District Council is the prime entity although owners of private bores upstream from the HDC intakes will also be investigated.

Of more interest to me will be the web of regulatory interests. Here it gets more complicated:

  • Ministry of Health has primary responsibility for all public health matters. It sets the standards for public water supply (Drinking Water Standards 2000) and monitors national performance
  • MoH delegates some of its responsibility to the public health units in each DHB (to monitor local public supplies) and to territorial authorities (not regional councils) to monitor private supplies
  • Regional councils have some responsibilities around water quality in general and consent the water take by territorial authorities and private land owners for water supplies but have no role in regulating the quality of water supplies

HBRC's press release says:
HBRC has undertaken an extensive investigation into the source of the contamination and the condition of water supply bores in the area in accordance with its statutory responsibilities under the Resource Management Act.
 A regional council's statutory responsibility, in this context, is (RMA s30(1)(c)):

the control of the use of land for the purpose of—

the maintenance and enhancement of the quality of water in water bodies and coastal water:
So their investigation is vital but they neglect to mention that their investigation stops at the wellhead. We need as much solid information we can get from HBRC about how runoff from ruminants contaminated a supposedly  sealed aquifer and, thence, entered a public water supply. But that is where it ends.

They go on to say:
HBRC is very keen to see the cause of the contamination identified and to ensure it does not happen again
Let's again be very clear it is not HRBC's responsibility to ensure it doesn't happen again unless it proves that their (mis-)management of the Tukituki River catchment was a significant contributor to the contamination.

I was left with the clear impression from the press release that HRBC has appointed itself as the investigator above the fray. Nothing could be further from the truth. The degree to which they have ever monitored all water consent conditions will be inquired into; the degree to which they have investigated water quality in the river catchment; and, in particular, the degree to which they have controlled land use in that catchment to maintain and enhance water quality will also be in the spotlight. In making decisions on whether to treat Havelock North water HDC are completely reliant on the information provided by HBRC; did they get it?

For this inquiry to be a success and deliver benefits to the whole country each one of these parties has to present in good faith bringing as many facts to the table as possible. And they should leave it to the Inquiry to form its own judgments. What we don't need - before the inquiry even starts - is one party slurring another party by innuendo and claiming to the public it has a role and a moral high ground that it doesn't have.

If a party to the inquiry appears to be gathering evidence for the purpose of putting another party in bad light what value can be placed on any of their evidence? And, if the Inquiry has doubts over the integrity of the evidence given to it, what use will their final recommendations be?

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