In 2015, scientists from Macquarie University published research showing that lead levels in water found inside of the homes of residents of the town of Pioneer in north-east Tasmania was 22 times above the safe drinking standard. There were similar findings for other towns in that area.
The scale of lead contamination was surprising (although perhaps not for the local residents) and embarrassing for the entity responsible for water and sewerage, called TasWater. Initially they disagreed with the findings and then commissioned their own review into the study that tried to poke holes in the Macquarie University team’s research. The scientists responded to the TasWater review by publishing a detailed rebuttal to all supposed issues raised in the review, concluding that all TasWater’s review had done was to ‘confuse the matter’ without adding anything to the debate. Their conclusion was proved to be correct when recently internal emails between TasWater employees were published showing how TasWater were seeking ways to downplay the Macquarie University research.
TasWater’s conduct throughout this process raises potential liability questions, especially as the research suggests that the lead contamination is not a recent issue. In cases like this, there is a risk of legal liability for TasWater as the ‘regulated entity’ under the Water and Sewerage Industry Act 2008 (Tas) and the Public Health Act 1997 (Tas) and also in negligence. Until recently, politicians in Tasmania were relatively quiet on this issue, however, the Tasmanian Greens have called for a parliamentary inquiry into the governance of TasWater which Labour has indicated it will support.
In light of the current issues of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, lead contamination in water and its consequential legal liabilities in Australia will be an interesting space to watch, not just for regional areas like Pioneer but also in urban centres.
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