Thursday, 23 February 2017

First (and probably only) casualty in Hawkes Bay

We heard today that Hawkes Bay Regional Council Chief Executive, Andrew Newman, has "resigned". For Havelock North and other Hawkes Bay residents who are looking for accountability over the Havelock North gastro outbreak, Newman's departure may be the nearest they get to satisfaction.

Make no mistake: regardless of how it is dressed up Newman has been persuaded to leave. He was always on shaky ground since last year's local body elections. He has been a driver of the Ruataniwha water storage and irrigation scheme for some time. But last year's election tipped the balance on the Council away from the scheme. So instead of having the backing of the elected members Newman was now on the wrong side. He either had to leave or diplomatically pull his head in. He did neither.

HBRC Chair, Rex Graham, is claiming the departure stems from differences over the Ruataniwha scheme but I think there is more to it than that. The nail in the coffin was Newman's extraordinary and unilateral decision to prosecute Hasting District Council over a peripheral matter related to the gastro outbreak. Newman committed the cardinal sin for a local government staffer of taking a sensitive decision with huge public risk attached to it without getting the go ahead from the elected members.

I have no idea why Newman exercised such poor judgement but the prosecution and the investigation that preceded the prosecution showed evidence of a witch hunt. The HBRC investigation into the cause of the gastro outbreak (not their job and they have no expertise in the area but they did it anyway) was completely one-sided. It very much looks like HBRC wanted to blame HDC from the very start and only collected what evidence they needed to support a prosecution. Why would they do that? The Inquiry only needed the various parties to turn up with copies of their records; no-one needed to conduct investigations.

I can only assume that HBRC really wanted to deflect attention from their own failings. It is possible that HBRC did not do enough to protect the groundwater source that HDC relied on or had their attention so diverted by the Ruataniwha scheme proposal that they neglected important scientific work in other parts of the region.

We have more important evidence to be given on the Mangateretere Pond as a source of contaminated water. And then we may know little more about who knew what and when and whether you assign blame to any organisation or person. I suspect we will not have any clear accountability; that we have a systemic error. That being the case take Mr Newman's "resignation" as the price he has paid for HBRC's contribution to the gastro outbreak.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Sorry Havelock North, Probably No Heads on a Pike

RNZ reported on 2 February that the independent Science Caucus assisting the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry has determined it's most likely that the source of the campylobacter in the outbreak came from a pond close the the Brookvale No 1 bore. And it seems clear that there is a hydraulic link from the surface pond to the bore.

In terms of deciding what happened there are still two possibilities to be examined: contaminated water ran across the surface into the Mangateretere Pond during a high rainfall event then either entered the bore (i) via the aquifer or (ii) via a hole in the well casing.

In the first scenario the contaminated water was basically sucked down from the pond via a natural pathway through the impervious layer then into the well with the normal clean water.

In the second scenario there is no pathway through the impervious layer but contaminated groundwater flowed around the well and entered the water supply via a hole in the well casing.

A lot of smoke has been wafted around by Hawkes Bay Regional Council, Hastings District Council as well as a lot of private submitters to the Inquiry concerning the cause of the gastro outbreak and, by extension, who is to blame. This report clears the air considerably but, unfortunately, will probably not result in any clear accountability.

Reports suggest that both HBRC and HDC knew about this hydraulic connection as early as 2008. We wait to find out who knew what and when but until then it is likely that the division of responsibilities between HBRC, HDC and the Hawkes Bay District Health Board mean that we simply won't be able to finger one organisation let alone an individual.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Swimming Baths?

When I was a kid people talked about going to "the baths" about as often as going to the "swimming pool". It always seemed kind of weird but pretty much everything adult was a mystery to me then. I am happy to say I finally solved that little mystery recently when I delved into The Great Filth by Stephen Halliday. 

While the Inquiry into Havelock North's Drinking Water was in recess I thought I would put the whole outbreak and the inquiry into some context. I knew that in the 19th century huge advances were made in public health but I had no idea of the detail. This book is a very readable primer on the various strands of improvement of disease prevention that took place then. The "War Against Disease" had two major strands: the purely medical involved vaccination, childbirth practices and antisepsis in hospitals; the public health stream involved cleaning up water supplies, removing rubbish and improving housing. It's the latter stream that is most relevant to the Inquiry.

You cannot underestimate what a game changer public health improvements were at that time.

During the 60 odd years of Queen Victoria's reign, life expectancy in Britain increased by a staggering 50%. Declines in infant mortality and deaths in hospital, and the eradication of smallpox were important factors as was a lift in nutrition. But, just as important were the great public sanitation improvements carried out by councils: improving the supply of drinking water, improving the removal of sewage and stormwater, providing bathing facilities, and demolishing unsanitary buildings.

Local government achieved something in the late 19th Century that was more important than all the inventions of the time: they made cities livable. Not in the ill-defined way that that word is used today but literally. Until the heroic age of sanitation cities were dangerous places where disease was rife. In fact all places where humans were jammed together in large numbers were dangerous. The enlisted men in the army and navy were much more likely to die from disease than enemy action. Likewise prisoners in London's notorious Newgate Prison had more to fear from "prison fever" than the hangman.

But, as councils built proper water supply systems, and pipes to remove sewage and stormwater, and removed rubbish from the streets the incidence of communicable disease declined significantly. This allowed cities to grow and to benefit from the bringing together of people and their businesses.

There must have been a real sense of mission in some councils. Many of these activities were encouraged by the Medical Officer of Health - who was a council employee in those days. In addition to the engineering works the MoH also oversaw the demolition of insanitary buildings and encouraged changes in city design to get noxious industries separated from people. Amongst other things councils built public bathing facilities so that people could wash if they had no access to proper water supplies. Quietly, over the years, those facilities have transformed into recreational swimming pools although they were known as "the baths" into modern times.

That sense of purpose is long gone and we have been flailing around for the last 30 years trying to define just what local government is for. We are probably still no closer to a compelling answer to match the triumph of the Victorian Age.

As the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry continues I will be looking to see whether this loss of purpose was a factor in the outbreak. It certainly let down everything that the great pioneers of public health fought for 150 years ago.

Break over

I'm back from an extended break now that that the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry has resumed.