Excellent summary of the issues surrounding Pioneer’s drinking water quality woes by Tim Slade can be found here
The tiny Tasmanian town of Pioneer is finally getting a piped water supply after contamination scare
November 1 2022
After a lead scare and a decade of temporary fixes, a tiny Tasmanian town is finally getting a piped supply of drinking water.
Pioneer is a picturesque town with a population of fewer than 100 in the state’s north-east.
Lynette Simpson, who’s lived there for the past 20 years, said she was “bloody excited” to see trucks and tradesmen digging trenches in the town’s main street.
“Carrying water, having no water, it’s been hard yakka,” she said.
“But you know what, we’re getting water now and that’s all that matters to me.”
The town’s tap water was deemed unfit to drink in 2012, and researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney subsequently found that ageing infrastructure was contaminating the water supply.
As a solution, TasWater installed roof-fed rainwater drinking tanks at properties within the town.
But it later emerged that some of the properties’ roofs had too much lead in the paint — and that the drinking water may have been unsafe.
Documents obtained by the ABC showed that TasWater had commissioned tests of the roof paint and should have been aware of the problem before installing the water tanks.
The state’s water authority said it misread the test results.
Some residents have been using water trucked in by TasWater, while waiting to be connected to the piped water supply.
Lynette Simpson said it would be life-changing to turn on the taps and have decent drinking water.
“I don’t have to come down and carry water, I don’t have to wash my hair in a bucket.”
“It will be just bloody lovely to stand under the shower and not having pumps running all the time and bumping up my power bill.”
Shower ‘with your eyes shut’
Greg Howard is the mayor of Dorset Council, which includes Pioneer.
He said he suspected the town’s water supply had been contaminated for far more than 10 years, as it was in a mining area with a lot of heavy metals in the ground.
“It’s just that 10 years ago you didn’t have to check for them,” he said.
“It’s only when there were changes to the Australian Drinking Water [Guidelines] that people started testing for some of these heavy metals that were probably in a number of town drinking water supplies around the state.”
“And they were in much heavier quantities up in Pioneer than in most other areas.”
Local resident Garry Watson remembers getting a brochure in the mail from the state’s water authority, TasWater, about his water usage.
“It mentioned that we could shower in that water, but you must keep your mouth and your eyes shut,” he said.
“We could grow our vegetables with that water, but certainly do not wash them in the water before you eat.”
A decade of uncertainty over whether their water was safe to drink has left some residents frustrated with TasWater.
Mr Howard said the water authority’s decision to install rainwater tanks, in response to the contaminated water supply, had been a “very poor option”.
“It was a cheap option, they thought they’d get away with a little spend rather than a decent spend and it didn’t work,” he said.
In a statement, TasWater said cost was never an issue, and at the time, locals wanted water tanks over a piped supply of water.
Planning and building a new reticulation system took time, it added.
TasWater will continue to truck in treated water until the pipes are laid and the system is up and running, which it expects will happen by May 2023.
Cr Howard said he was relieved to see the water pipes going into the ground and advised perseverance for other regional towns struggling with water issues.
“It’s hard to deal with big corporations and they tend to concentrate on bigger problems in the bigger population areas, which is probably understandable.”
“The little voices in the little country towns seem to have less of a voice.”
DO NOT CONSUME WATER WARNING IMPOSED 2012
Pioneer (Tasmania) – E.coli
July 14 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 3.1 MPN100/mL
August 11 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 2 MPN100/mL
December 15 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 1 MPN100/mL
January 27 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 2 MPN100/mL
March 8 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 1 MPN100/mL
April 19 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 2 MPN100/mL
May 17 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 7.4 MPN100/mL
June 15 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – 3.1 MPN100/mL
2016/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) 10 E.coli Exceedences. Poor microbiological performance can be attributed to a lack of barriers and the susceptibility to changes in quality from the Ringarooma River. The risk to public health is mitigated through the communication of the Permanent PHA to customers.
11/7/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) E.coli of 2 MPN/100mL in monthly compliance sample – resampling not required subject to PHA
8/8/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) E.coli of 3.1 MPN/100mL in monthly compliance sample – resampling not required subject to PHA
Escherichia coli should not be detected in any 100 mL sample of drinking water. If detected
in drinking water, immediate action should be taken including investigation of potential
sources of faecal contamination.
“Coliforms are Gram-negative, non-spore-forming, rod-shaped bacteria that are capable of aerobic and facultative anaerobic growth in the presence of bile salts or other surface active agents with similar growth-inhibiting properties. They are found in large numbers in the faeces of humans and other warm-blooded animals, but many species also occur in the environment.
Thermotolerant coliforms are a sub-group of coliforms that are able to grow at 44.5 ± 0.2°C. E. coli is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces and is regarded as the most specific indicator of recent faecal contamination because generally it is not capable of growth in the environment. In contrast, some other thermotolerant coliforms (including strains of Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Enterobacter) are able to grow in the environment and their presence is not necessarily related to faecal contamination. While tests for thermotolerant coliforms can be simpler than for E. coli, E. coli is considered a superior indicator for detecting faecal contamination…” ADWG 2011
Pioneer – (Tasmania) – Lead 2009-16
November 17 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Lead 0.0166 mg/L
November 17 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Lead (Dissolved) 0.0099 mg/L
March 22 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Lead 0.0113 mg/L
June 21 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Lead 0.0108 mg/L
2016/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Lead 0.092mg/L (max)
In 2009-11, the following Tasmanian communities also had lead readings above the ADWG, Whitemark 0.017mg/L, Pioneer 0.015mg/L & 0.0109mg/L and Avoca 0.0106mg/L.
The RTI data reveals that Lead continued to be a problem in the small community of Winneleah, particularly around February/March in 2014. So serious was the problem that an alternative water supply option was provided. According to a story nationally aired by the 7.30 Report: https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4222652.htm
“After testing 179 water, rock and soil samples, they’ve found the source water is clean and the lead contamination is coming from old pipes, infrastructure and the household plumbing. MARK TAYLOR: The natural catchment waters are not contaminating the drinking water supply. That contamination is coming from the infrastructure that is in the town and in people’s homes. MICHAEL ATKIN: The most alarming finding is lead levels inside houses in Pioneer are 22 times above the safe drinking standard. MARK TAYLOR: It’s pretty clear that these numbers that we can see coming out of people’s taps are the worst that we’ve seen in Australia.
Oddly enough these massively high lead levels detected at Pioneer were not reflected in the data provided by the TasWater RTI. It is also strange that Rosebery had recorded a level of lead 5 times higher than that of Winneleah, in August 2013, yet a similar focus on Rosebery’s lead crisis avoided media scrutiny. The average lead detection at Pioneer 2013/14 was 73.7% of the Australian Drinking Water Guideline
Highest Lead detection Pioneer 2013/14: 12ug/L
A Snapshot of Tasmanian Non-Microbiological Detections in Drinking Water July 2013-June 2014. Selected Breaches of Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (Friends of the Earth Australia)
Pioneer – (Tasmania) – Aluminium
June 3 2014: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Aluminium 1.9863mg/L
August 25 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Aluminium 0.816 mg/L
August 25 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Aluminium (Dissolved) 0.567 mg/L
According to the ADWG, no health guideline has been adopted for Aluminium, but that the issue is still open to review. Aluminium can come from natural geological sources or from the use of aluminium salts as coagulants in water treatment plants. According to the ADWG “A well-operated water filtration plant (even using aluminium as a flocculant) can achieve aluminium concentrations in the finished water of less than 0.1 mg/L.
The most common form of aluminium in water treatment plants is Aluminium Sulfate (Alum). Alum can be supplied as a bulk liquid or in granular form. It is used at water treatment plants as a coagulant to remove turbidity, microorganisms, organic matter and inorganic chemicals. If water is particularly dirty an Alum dose of as high as 500mg/L could occur. There is also concern that other metals may also exist in refined alum.
While the ADWG mentions that there is considerable evidence that Aluminium is neurotoxic and can pass the gut barrier to accumulate in the blood, leading to a condition called encephalopathy (dialysis dementia) and that Aluminium has been associated with Parkinsonism dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the NHMRC, whilst also acknowledging studies which have linked Aluminium with Alzheimer disease, has not granted Aluminium a NOEL (No Observable Effect Level) due to insufficient and contradictory data. Without a NOEL, a health guideline cannot be established. The NHMRC has also stated that if new information comes to hand, a health guideline may be established in the future.
In communication with Aluminium expert Dr Chris Exley (Professor in Bioinorganic Chemistry
The Birchall Centre, Lennard-Jones Laboratories, Keele University, Staffordshire UK) in March 2013 regarding high levels of Aluminium detected in the South Western Victorian town of Hamilton
“It is my opinion that any value above 0.5 mg/L is totally unacceptable and a potential health risk. Where such values are maintained over days, weeks or even months, as indeed is indicated by the data you sent to me, these represent a significant health risk to all consumers. While consumers may not experience any short term health effects the result of longer term exposure to elevated levels of aluminium in potable waters may be a significant increase in the body burden of aluminium in these individuals. This artificially increased body burden will not return to ‘normal’ levels when the Al content of the potable water returns to normal but will act as a new platform level from which the Al body burden will continue to increase with age.
Pioneer – (Tasmania) – Colour
August 25 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Colour Apparent 202 PCU
November 17 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Colour Apparent 195 PCU
March 22 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Colour Apparent 199 PCU
June 21 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Colour Apparent 118 PCU
2016/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Colour 118 HU (max), 90.67 HU (mean)
Based on aesthetic considerations, true colour in drinking water should not exceed 15 HU.
“… Colour is generally related to organic content, and while colour derived from natural sources such as humic and fulvic acids is not a health consideration, chlorination of such water can produce a variety of chlorinated organic compounds as by-products (see Section 6.3.2 on disinfection by-products). If the colour is high at the time of disinfection, then the water should be checked for disinfection by-products. It should be noted, however, that low colour at the time of disinfection does not necessarily mean that the concentration of disinfection by-products will be low…” ADWG 2011
Pioneer – Tasmania – Iron
August 25 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron 776ug/L
November 17 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron 1660ug/L
November 17 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron (dissolved) 902ug/L
March 22 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron 1880ug/L
March 22 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron (dissolved) 368ug/L
June 21 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Iron 895ug/L
Based on aesthetic considerations (precipitation of iron from solution and taste),
the concentration of iron in drinking water should not exceed 0.3 mg/L.
No health-based guideline value has been set for iron.
Iron has a taste threshold of about 0.3 mg/L in water, and becomes objectionable above 3 mg/L. High iron concentrations give water an undesirable rust-brown appearance and can cause staining of laundry and plumbing fittings, fouling of ion-exchange softeners, and blockages in irrigation systems. Growths of iron bacteria, which concentrate iron, may cause taste and odour problems and lead to pipe restrictions, blockages and corrosion. ADWG 2011
Pioneer (Tasmania) – Manganese
March 22 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Manganese 0.134mg/L
Manganese: ADWG Guidelines 0.5mg/L. ADWG Aesthetic Guideline 0.1mg/L
Manganese is found in the natural environment. Manganese in drinking water above 0.1mg/L can give water an unpleasant taste and stain plumbling fixtures and laundry.
Pioneer (Tasmania) – pH (acidic)
Average pH: 2015 July-2016 June: 6.099 pH units
Based on the need to reduce corrosion and encrustation in pipes and fittings, the pH of
drinking water should be between 6.5 and 8.5.
New concrete tanks and cement-mortar lined pipes can significantly increase pH and
a value up to 9.2 may be tolerated, provided monitoring indicates no deterioration in
pH is a measure of the hydrogen ion concentration of water. It is measured on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 14. A pH of 7 is neutral, greater than 7 is alkaline, and less than 7 is acidic.
One of the major objectives in controlling pH is to minimise corrosion and encrustation in pipes and fittings. Corrosion can be reduced by the formation of a protective layer of calcium carbonate on the inside of the pipe or fitting, and the formation of this layer is affected by pH, temperature, the availability of calcium (hardness) and carbon dioxide. If the water is too alkaline (above pH 8.5), the rapid deposition and build-up of calcium carbonate that can result may eventually block the pipe.
Pioneer – Tasmania – Temperature
December 15 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Temperature 22.2C
January 27 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Temperature 20.2C
February 9 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Temperature 21C
March 3 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Temperature 20.5C
“No guideline is set due to the impracticality of controlling water temperature.
Drinking water temperatures above 20°C may result in an increase in the number of
Temperature is primarily an aesthetic criterion for drinking water. Generally, cool water is more palatable than warm or cold water. In general, consumers will react to a change in water temperature. Complaints are most frequent when the temperature suddenly increases.
The turbidity and colour of filtered water may be indirectly affected by temperature, as low water temperatures tend to decrease the efficiency of water treatment processes by, for instance, affecting floc formation rates and sedimentation efficiency.
Chemical reaction rates increase with temperature, and this can lead to greater corrosion of pipes and fittings in closed systems. Scale formation in hard waters will also be greater at higher temperatures…
Water temperatures in major Australian reticulated supplies range from 10°C to 30°C. In some long, above-ground pipelines, water temperatures up to 45°C may be experienced…
The effectiveness of chlorine as a disinfectant is influenced by the temperature of the water being dosed. Generally higher temperatures result in more effective disinfection at a particular chlorine dose, but this may be counterbalanced by a more rapid loss of chlorine to the atmosphere (AWWA 1990).
Pioneer – Tasmania – Turbidity
November 10 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 6.11 NTU
December 15 2015: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 6.65 NTU
January 27 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 9.63 NTU
April 19 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 7.79 NTU
May 17 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 13.3 NTU
June 15 2016: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 13.8 NTU
2016/17: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 27.4 NTU, 8.11 NTU (mean)
2017/18: Pioneer (Tasmania) – Turbidity 7.74 NTU
Chlorine-resistant pathogen reduction: Where filtration alone is used as the water treatment
process to address identified risks from Cryptosporidium and Giardia, it is essential
that filtration is optimised and consequently the target for the turbidity of water leaving
individual filters should be less than 0.2 NTU, and should not exceed 0.5 NTU at any time
Disinfection: A turbidity of less than 1 NTU is desirable at the time of disinfection with
chlorine unless a higher value can be validated in a specific context.
Aesthetic: Based on aesthetic considerations, the turbidity should not exceed 5 NTU at the
TasWater connected water to homes with known contamination problems, documents show
Eva Pagett lives in the tiny, idyllic Tasmanian village of Pioneer, and while it looks clean and green, she can drink only bottled water since discovering her water supply is contaminated.
“We recently had it tested by TasWater and it was shown up with a number of chemicals that really weren’t great to drink — cadmium, lead and other things,” she said.
Her tank has been disconnected due to water running off her old lead-painted roof and into her tank, contaminating the water supply.
She’s one of a number of residents whose roofs are making their tank water unsafe to drink.
Mark Simpson has also been living off bottled water because metals were found in his water supply.
“We’ve got cadmium in the water, which is toxic,” he said.
“She’s an old roof, I’ve tried to paint it and fix it up but originally it’s got old paint on it that’s got lead content.”
Water authority connected homes despite known risks
Water quality testing has been completed for 32 of the 43 properties in Pioneer as part of TasWater’s Rainwater catchment inspection program.
Lance Stapleton, the technical solutions program manager, said they only discovered the contaminated water in the past few months.
“In the current testing program, which has been conducted over the past few months, we’ve identified 12 properties which have got elevated levels of metals in their drinking water tanks,” he said.
But this isn’t the first time Pioneer’s water supply has been contaminated.
Water was deemed unfit to drink in 2012, sparking concerns residents had been exposed to unsafe levels of lead for years before being warned about it.
One local resident, Tim Slade, spent the past seven years trying to ensure the town had a clean supply of water.
He said he felt very sad and angry for the town, with reports of local residents carting clean water by hand for the past seven years as they are too scared and untrusting to drink any of the water supplied by TasWater.
“There are people with severe disabilities in this town, some of them have lead-painted roofs and that’s been brought to the attention of TasWater and the overseers countless times,” he said.
“It’s never made any difference to the representation of us.
“TasWater were aware as early as 2014 that certain properties did have lead-painted roofs, but they proceeded to hook up anyway,” he said.
The ABC obtained documents that confirmed in 2014, TasWater had an independent entity undertake tests of roof paint on multiple properties in Pioneer to establish the content of lead in the paint.
The results showed that some of these properties had a content of lead in the paint that was well above the current limit of 0.1 percent in domestic paint as per the Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy.
Despite these test results, TasWater went ahead and connected the water tanks to the roofs.
“We acknowledge that we could have done better and we acknowledge that there were some problems with the rollout. This was one of them and this is why we are seeking to rectify the situation right now,” Mr Stapleton said.
TasWater Chief Executive Mike Brewster said: “TasWater did not knowingly connect Pioneer residents with lead in their roofs to rainwater tanks, but in 2014, testing was offered to residents and we do acknowledge that some results were misread at that time.
“In 2018, residents were notified that TasWater discovered lead in roofs of homes in the area, but the water was deemed safe, at that point the water in the tanks still met Australian Drinking Water Guideline limits.”
TasWater made a submission to the Tasmanian Economic Regulator in 2017 regarding the Pioneer service replacement in which it stated the service replacement option would involve assistance to ensure guttering and roofs were adequate to supply water to the tank.
The submission also made reference to agreements and discussion with TasWater (then Ben Lomond Water) that the service replacement option would involve the repair of downpipes, roofs and gutters to a standard where they were suitable to collect rainwater for consumption.
It is unknown how long the affected Pioneer residents have been drinking the contaminated water, with some of the locals astonished that they are once again in a situation where their water is unsafe to drink.
“This could go on for years, it’s been going on for years now, so I just want it to be resolved so we can get on with our lives,” Mr Simpson said.
“I just want them to pull their finger out and let us know what’s going on.”
No timeframe for roof replacement
In accordance to the guidance on the use of rainwater tanks from the Australian Government Department of Health and the Environmental Health Standing Committee, it states: ‘Do not collect rainwater from roofs painted with products containing high lead concentrations (for example, pre-1970s paint).’
As a solution TasWater have said it will replace some of the roofs in the town.
“In some cases, that may actually involve replacing the roof and if that is the case, we will cover the cost,” Mr Stapleton said.
But for many residents this is yet to happen.
Mrs Pagett has heard from other residents that it took about three years for some of them to receive water tanks and she doesn’t want to wait that long for a new roof.
“To be honest, you don’t know until you get something in writing, all the innuendoes that people give and all the things that they say…It’s a lot of finger-tapping I suppose,” Mrs Pagett said.
Mr Simpson said it was suggested he would receive a new roof when his water tank was first installed, but he has now been waiting for several years and cannot afford to make the upgrade himself.
“I’m looking at quite a few dollars there to replace a roof and in my financial situation I cannot afford to replace my roof at this particular time,” he said.
Dorset Council Mayor Greg Howard said he has been in ongoing conversations with TasWater without any satisfaction and he believes it’s their responsibility to either replace the roofs or put Pioneer on a reticulated water system.
“It’s going to be an expensive solution for a small number of residents but quite clearly you can’t persist with drinking lead water.”
“Lead has quite a negative impact on people’s mental capacity and so we don’t want anyone to be affected adversely,” he said.
The Public Health Service said it wants to ensure drinking water in Tasmanian communities is safe for consumption and supplied in accordance with guidelines.
“When service replacement is undertaken, Public Health Service expects TasWater to complete all reasonable steps to ensure rainwater tanks provided to residents are installed consistent with guidelines and legislative requirements, such as building and plumbing codes.”
For Mrs Pagett, she doesn’t care if they install a new roof or find another way to fix the contaminated water problem — she just wants it resolved.
“Water is one of those survival things and we want our water to be clean and we want our water to be pure,” she said.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in Pioneer at the moment and people are just wanting to know what we are doing and that we are going to have safe water.”
A further two properties in Pioneer are scheduled for the next round of rainwater catchments testing to find out if their water is also contaminated.
Call for inquiry into Pioneer’s lead-contaminated drinking water
Nov 10 2019
A resident of the North-East town of Pioneer is fighting off a debt collector from TasWater while battling health issues, which she believes could have been caused by lead-contaminated drinking water.
Lin Simpson is one of a group of residents calling for an inquiry into TasWater’s supply of drinking water in the town, population 89, following contamination issues that are still not resolved.
In 2012, it was revealed the drinking water at Pioneer and other North-Eastern towns was contaminated with lead. All other towns were provided with a reticulated water supply except Pioneer, which was supplied with rainwater tanks. This year, it was discovered the water in some of the rainwater tanks also contained lead.
The residents are collecting signatures in a petition asking for a government inquiry, which McIntyre MLC Tania Rattray will present to the Legislative Council by November 15.
There is no substantiated evidence there is any link between the lead-contaminated water supplied by TasWater and health problems at Pioneer.
Macquarie University environmental scientist and lead expert Mark Taylor, who was one of the authors of a 2015 report on Pioneer, said lead only stayed in the bloodstream for 30 – 60 days, but could be deposited in the skeletal system and cause adverse health effects.
He said that as systematic blood testing did not occur when the lead contamination was discovered in 2012, it would not be possible to conclusively link health issues in the town with lead contamination.
“Levels of lead in water has been associated with elevated lead in blood, and elevated levels of lead in blood has been associated with adverse health effects in large studies,” he said.
But residents want a methodical investigation into the matter, as well as how the issue has unfolded as a whole.
For Mrs Simpson, a former nurse, her health issues began when her body underwent an iron overload in 2012, a term for excess amounts of iron being deposited in the liver, heart and pancreas. Then, this year, Mrs Simpson suffered two fainting episodes caused by heart problems – called a cardiovascular syncope – along with pain, nausea and vomiting, which her medical records attribute to her kidneys as a likely origin point.
Mrs Simpson wants to know if her kidney and heart problems were caused by contaminated drinking water and the corresponding stress.
In the meantime, she has refused to pay her water bill in protest, and TasWater has commissioned a debt collector to chase her for it.
Jenny Bellinger, also a former nurse, is another resident collecting signatures for the petition. She said at the time the town found out about the contamination, she had a deteriorating skin infection.
“I was in and out of bath; three, four times a day, and of course all I was doing was reinfecting it,” she said. “As soon as I found out [about the water contamination] I went to Scottsdale and it got better straight away.”
The US Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer agree that lead is probably cancer-causing in humans.
Carmel Luck and her husband Mick lived at Pioneer from 2006 to 2016, and have both suffered cancer.
“We still don’t know if it’s exposure to water,” she said.
“We don’t know how much effect it’s had on our health. It’s hard to pin it down to water, it’s hard to pin it down to just one cause. There definitely needs to be some sort of inquiry.
“The last time I contacted TasWater, they just told me that I wasn’t a customer anymore [after they moved away and rented out their property].
“To read their customer newsletter, about how clean and wonderful everything is … I don’t read it anymore. I mean, you’ve got to look after your blood pressure.”
Dr Alison Bleaney OBE is a former North-Eastern general practitioner, a member of the National Toxics Network with a special interest in drinking water, and water advocate.
In 2010, her research led to an independent panel investigating planted trees depositing toxins in the George River at St Helens, which were found to be at a level not harmful to humans.
She said the science was indisputable that lead is a neurotoxin and an endocrine disruptor, and that even though it only shows up in the bloodstream for a matter of months, could cause delayed health impacts after consumption.
“With huge levels of lead, you can die from it,” she said.
“Medium levels, they’ll get sick, and it might take quite a few years to get the full adverse effects, and at lower levels it might take quite a while to show the effects. With heavy metals there can be increased instances of cancer. There are many adverse effects of lead, all of which should be entertained.
“For children, their IQ will be down, there’s increased levels of autism, increased levels of violent behaviour – I mean, that’s why they started taking lead out of petrol.
“So you put that all together, is there any problem with the lead that was and is in Pioneer? Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if [the Health Department] knows. I don’t think there’s been any investigation. And I am very perplexed as to why Public Health has not been more interested in ensuring the safety of the town.”
TasWater chief executive Mike Brewster said: “Our advice to people who think that their water supply may be impacting their health has always been to seek the advice of appropriately qualified medical experts.”
What’s happened so far
The water saga began when Pioneer residents were called to a meeting with Ben Lomond Water – as the water authority was called before it was incorporated into TasWater – in November 2012, where they were informed there were unsafe levels of lead and other contaminants in their drinking water.
A document seen by The Examiner shows that after water testing began in 2009, unsafe levels of lead were recorded at Pioneer in November 2010, February 2011, December 2011, and twice around September 2012, before the residents were informed in November 2012.
Mr Brewster said they were following the Health Department endorsed process at the time, which was to require two consecutive unsafe readings before instigating a public health alert.
A 2015 Macquarie University study found the lead in Pioneer’s water came from “dilapidated drinking water infrastructure” supplied by TasWater – then Ben Lomond Water.
At the time, Pioneer’s water supply came from Pioneer Dam, which was bulldozed by TasWater in 2013.
Pioneer Dam was fed by the Greenstone Creek, which was fed by overflow from the Frome Dam before the dam was cut off from Pioneer to be used in the Winneleah Irrigation Scheme around 2011.
The water travelled around the catchment through a series of pipes and water races – including at the decommissioned Moorina Power Station – which were installed in about 1909 and made partly using lead. When it reached the town the water travelled through aged PVC pipes, which also are thought to leach lead, before coming out through household plumbing systems that also leached various degrees of lead.
The study notes that at the time, there were 30 children living at Pioneer. Children are the most susceptible to health impacts of lead consumption.
After the November 2012 meeting where the lead contamination was made public, TasWater presented the residents of Pioneer in November 2013 with three options in a printed survey seen by The Examiner: to do nothing and continue charging Pioneer residents for water; to supply individual homes with a rainwater tank and continue the connection to the lead-contaminated water at a cost; or to supply water tanks and disconnect the contaminated water supply.
Treated water was not an option on the survey.
Mr Brewster said that: “Ben Lomond Water put that option [of treated water] forward in 2013, but it was rejected by a majority of the residents of Pioneer.”
A TasWater spokesperson added that that on the basis of “extensive consultation” and a public meeting in April 2013, the company was led to believe rainwater tanks were the preferred option of the residents over treated water.
Out of the three options proposed, the residents voted for the rainwater tanks and agreed to pay for the lead-contaminated water to remain connected, in case of needing to fight fires.
But several other towns in the North-East were found to have contaminated water around the same time – Herrick, Ringarooma, Winneleah, Branxholm, and Legerwood – and Pioneer resident Jenny Bellinger said they were blindsided when all of the other towns were offered treated water by TasWater.
“The gut-wrenching part was when they put [water treatment] plants in at Herrick [six kilometres from Pioneer], and plants in everywhere else,” she
Pioneer was the first town in the North-East with which TasWater negotiated a solution to the lead contamination. Mrs Simpson believes it was through the town that TasWater realised treated water was a more sensible solution than rainwater tanks.
“We were the guinea pigs and it [rainwater tanks] failed dismally,” she said.
Lead still in the water
Recent testing has shown that some Pioneer residents still have contaminated drinking water, due to TasWater’s failure to test their roofs, guttering and downpipes for lead and other materials when it installed rainwater tanks.
At least 12 properties at Pioneer have paint on their roofs that contain lead or other metals in unsafe quantities.
Dean and Eva Mitchell bought their property after 2012, on the assumption the supplied rainwater tanks were an adequate source of drinking water.
“I have my grandson at my place, and until they cut off the tank water, I thought that water was fine,” Mrs Mitchell said.
“I was drinking it, my grandson was drinking it. He’s two years old. They tested it two or three times, and then rang us to say, don’t touch the water, don’t even boil it, don’t touch it.”
Lin Simpson, Jenny Bellinger, and Pioneer resident Tim Slade all say that TasWater said verbally in 2013 that they would replace relevant infrastructure when they installed the rainwater tanks, but this did not occur.
Residents also formally asked, via a 2013 letter and petition to both the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, that a condition of them agreeing to the rainwater tanks solution was that “Ben Lomond Water [as TasWater was then called] must repair roofs, gutters, downpipes etc to a standard suitable for collecting rainwater for drinking”.
In a letter sent to Mr Brewster in December 2018, director of Public Health Mark Veitch said TasWater had a share in the responsibility for appropriate roofing.
“We note that roofs in poor condition and/or painted with older lead-based paint are inappropriate for collecting rainwater for drinking,” he wrote.
“TasWater’s submission in June 2017 to the Office of the Tasmanian Economic Regulator for the service replacement of Pioneer explicitly stated that the service replacement option would involve ‘the provision of assistance to ensure roofing and guttering were adequate to supply water to the tank’.
“The submission also cited earlier discussions and agreement that service replacement would involve ‘repair [of] roof, gutters and downpipes etc to a standard suitable for collecting rainwater for drinking’.
“I am concerned that this assistance appears not to have been provided.”
In a separate letter this year to TasWater, Mr Slade referenced the Australian Guidance of Use of Rainwater Tanks, which states ‘do not collect rainwater from roofs painted with products containing high lead concentrations’.
In response, TasWater chairman Stephen Gumley AO wrote to Mr Slade that the national guidance document was “not legally binding”.
Mr Brewster said that despite that comment, the company was using the Australian Guidance document as a benchmark for the standard of rainwater tanks.
He said the company’s predecessor, Ben Lomond Water, expressed to residents that roofs and gutters, “may be replaced to a reasonable extent in consultation with the property owner”.
“More recently, in response to concerns raised by residents and stakeholders, we have initiated a roof inspection program,” he said.
Pioneer residents are hoping for two outcomes from an inquiry, if the inquiry gets up.
The first is treated water.
“We should be able to turn on a bloody tap and have drinking water,” Mrs Simpson said.
“It’s simple, we just want treated water,” Ms Bellinger said. “It’s always been simple.”
“This is one of the lowest socioeconomic areas in the state, and the idea that a customer of TasWater needs to have a working knowledge of the science of lead to be a customer is totally farcical,” Mr Slade said.
“It is a low socioeconomic area, and we’re being treated like the third world,” Mrs Luck said.
“At the moment, we need another tank, and we’re happy to do that ourselves – that’s fine,” Mrs Mitchell said. “But in the long term we need a reticulated water system. It’s about the long-term future of Pioneer.”
Providing reticulated water would cost TasWater an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 per connection at Pioneer, and residents would be charged normal water rates following the connection.
The costs of distributing the rainwater tanks was about $22,000 per connection, not including the costs of roof replacement, which will be about $21,000 per connection. That does not include pre-existing structural problems which TasWater considers the responsibility of the owner.
Residents also want TasWater to be independently investigated and, if appropriate, held accountable for its decisions over the course of the past nine years.
Mr Brewster said it was not for TasWater to decide if an inquiry was warranted.
“There is a long history around Pioneer’s water going back to when council was responsible for the water supply and we understand that many people, not just those living in Pioneer, are interested in the issue,” he said.
Mrs Simpson said she first moved to Pioneer seeking an idyllic, healthy, Tasmanian life – on the assumption she was moving into a house with a drinkable water supply.
“This was my dream home,” she said.
“This was my vision, my dream, and now it’s just a building in a s–thole town with no water.”
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to show the cost of the rainwater tank distribution was $22,000 per connection. The previously stated figure was incorrect.