Tuesday, 13 December 2016

No End in Sight for HBRC's Poor Judgement

Let's be honest, yesterday's withdrawal of Hawkes Bay Regional Council's prosecution of Hastings District Council is humiliating. It is yet another in a series of HBRC missteps since the Havelock North gastro outbreak occurred in August this year. 

At the risk of repeating myself HBRC has no direct authority in public health matters. The lead agency in investigating a public health event is the Ministry of Health either directly or through the public health unit at a DHB. Yet HBRC took it upon itself to conduct an investigation into what caused the outbreak. Much of the evidence that was collected was necessary for the government's Inquiry but it should never have been collected within the context of an investigation into whether someone had committed offences under the RMA.

I have no hesitation in describing the investigation as biased even bordering on unprofessional. Although the report starts:

This report has been prepared for the Chief Executive of HBRC to outline the process and findings of the investigation undertaken by HBRC to determine whether any party has committed an offence under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

in fact the entire investigation appears to have been conducted with a single outcome in mind: to prove that engineering failures by HDC caused the gastro outbreak. 

For that to be so all other possible sources needed to be ruled out. There is very little substantive investigation into other possible sources - literally just 4 paragraphs. For instance, HBRC confidently states on p59 of its report that "[t]he pumping does not capture the water from the Mangateretere Stream." Except that it probably does and HBRC know that. During yesterday's hearing HBRC were forced to admit that they knew that there was a pathway from the Mangateretere Stream into the aquifer. That one admission in court pretty much invalidates this entire report. 

There is still a lot of useful information in this report despite its narrow focus. It is almost certainly true that contaminated water could make its way to the HDC well-heads. But that is a long way from saying that that water definitely entered the water supply that way. Even HBRC's own engineering consultant (bearing in mind that regional councils don't have any expertise in the engineering of public water supplies) is ambiguous in his conclusions about the security of the well-heads:

Under such conditions a pathway may be established which enables surface runoff to have entered Bore 1.

 "It's possible" is a long way from a definitive conclusion. Even before reading this report I thought HBRC's case was pretty weak. Now it looks like it is non-existent and HDC are magnanimous in agreeing to cop to an infringement in place of the prosecution.

Why would HBRC pursue this prosecution even when all the same information would come out in the Government Inquiry? Who knows? But this debacle throws up a fairly major problem for the Inquiry. There are question marks over whether HBRC are participating in the Inquiry in good faith and whether their evidence can be relied upon. They are the experts on the hydrogeology of the region but an independent investigation or review of HBRC data probably needs to be carried out before the Panel can trust it.

There is also a good case for the government to appoint commissioners to the HBRC to see it through the Inquiry. 

No comments:

Post a Comment