TasWater emails show company planned to hit back at scientists over contamination studies

Documents appear to show TasWater had a strategy of avoiding unwelcome independent scientific findings about lead contamination in the water supply in north-east Tasmania.

-by Michael Atkin, originally posted on April 10, 2016


Internal communications obtained by the ABC under Right to Information laws have revealed that TasWater planned to hit back against the scientists by challenging their research.

TasWater strongly denies any wrongdoing.

Unsafe lead contamination was first discovered in the drinking water in the small regional town of Pioneer in 2012.

Last year environmental scientists from Macquarie University, Professor Mark Taylor and PhD student Paul Harvey, released a peer-reviewed study into Pioneer’s water problems and claimed to have found answers.

They reported lead levels inside houses in Pioneer were 22 times above the safe drinking standard, which they described as the worst in Australia.

Professor Taylor and Mr Harvey explained their findings at a community meeting in Pioneer last April and invited the Department of Health and TasWater to attend, but TasWater declined.

A TasWater briefing note written before the meeting and sent to senior scientific and communications staff appears to show why.

It frankly discusses anger in the local community and criticism of TasWater’s slow response at delivering a solution.

Under the heading “ongoing issues” it notes: “Some residents … continue to complain about the ‘dirty’ water in Pioneer and want to know what TasWater will be doing to fix the problem.”

It concludes that TasWater “will not request a copy of the study” and “will not be attending the meeting”.

Taswater did not attend.

Professor Taylor criticised conditions in Pioneer including elderly people collecting water from a tank, comparing the situation to an impoverished country.

TasWater challenged the credibility of the Macquarie University scientists in emails.

Lance Stapleton, manager of product quality wrote:

“I’ve read this report … It is very wonky science and at this stage I think has truck-sized holes in it.

“I … want to engage external reviewers from another university to debunk their assertions.

“I don’t think we can take this lying down … we need to defend ourselves or at the very least cast a cloud over their research and their ethics.”

TasWater commissioned Water Research Australia to conduct a review of the Macquarie University study and while it found their conclusions were plausible, it also claimed not enough samples had been taken.

In an email, TasWater chief executive Mike Brewster congratulated Lance Stapleton.

Mr Brewster wrote:

“Great job Lance … I am just amending your PD [position description] now to incorporate media responsibilities.”

In a subsequent interview with the ABC, Mr Brewster described this comment as light-hearted banter.

Mr Brewster distanced himself from Mr Stapleton’s colourful language, but defended the independent review.

“[Mr Stapleton] put down his thoughts at the time, and from my perspective I just wanted an independent review. I was not interested in duelling scientists,” he said.

“There was no deliberate strategy from myself to discredit his work, it was to determine the veracity of his findings.”

Professor Taylor is not amused or convinced.

“They deliberately and purposefully constructed a scheme to attack the science rather than dealing with the issue,” he said.

“When people attack you like that I take it as a badge of honour because I know when they’re doing that their feathers are ruffled.”

TasWater has refused to supply Pioneer with reticulated water claiming it is too expensive.

Most residents have accepted rainwater tanks but 12 households have refused and continue to receive water that is unsafe to drink.

Documents also show TasWater unsuccessfully tried to persuade Professor Taylor to back their tank strategy.

In May Mr Stapleton wrote:

“Finding that middle ground that we are all prepared to ‘sing off the same sheet’ is going to do wonders for our credibility and will shut down the media’s main weapon.

“It also gives Mark Taylor a dignified way out of what could be a blow to his credibility.”

Mr Brewster responded:

“Excellent suggestion. Please proceed.”

Professor Taylor denies there has been any blow to his credibility.

He is currently undertaking a review of the management of contaminated sites in New South Wales.


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