TAMWORTH Regional Council has apologised to Kootingal, Moonbi and Bendemeer for an “oversight”, which left residents’ drinking water with high levels of uranium for at least two years.
Council’s water director Bruce Logan said the region’s drinking water had been tested for uranium every six months since 2014, however staff failed to notice levels had exceeded Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG).
He said only in the process of collecting the results for Hunter New England Health did council recognised that since testing began, one Kootingal bore and one Bendemeer bore had shown levels far above the ADWG’s recommend 17 micrograms per litre.
It’s unknown exactly how long Moonbi and Kootingal residents have been drinking the contaminated water – testing for uranium was only added to the ADWG in 2011 and council only started testing two years ago.
Mr Logan said it was impossible to know what the levels were prior to 2014.
“The Kootingal bores have been in place since the early 1960s and we know that bore five, which has the highest problem with uranium, was commissioned in 1983 or 1984,” Mr Logan said.
“So people have been consuming water out there with elevated levels of uranium for an extended period of time. If that is the case – and we aren’t sure that it is – what is the risk to people.”
From a “testing, sampling and monitoring aspect”, Mr Logan said council was doing the right thing.
However, council’s staff had “fallen down” by failing to recognise the results were outside the guidelines.
“As a result they didn’t take appropriate action,” Mr Logan said.
“That’s not good enough and not the level service council should be giving.”
Mr Logan said the “necessary measures” have been made with council’s staffing, “so our staff are fully aware of the failure and unacceptable nature of that failure”.
He pointed out council staff received more than 1900 water quality test reports a year and the uranium testing was only done six-monthly, so “it’s not one of the more common tests they see”.
“It’s difficult for staff to keep abreast of compliance levels for the various chemicals in the water,” he said.
The process has been changed to make it easier for staff to identify a non-compliant result. The compliant level will now be included beside the test result, “so anyone can see if it is compliant or not”. Mr Logan will also be personally notified of any non-compliant result by the laboratory.
“I’m confident the changes we’ve made will make it very unlikely this will happen again,” he said.
“I’m certainly concerned no action was taken, we’ve put in steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Only one of Kootingal’s bores has consistently tested positive, though Mr Logan said one other bore had shown an elevated level.
“Because we haven’t be testing for that long we are not sure if that was an isolated exceedance or if it has been an ongoing issue. Bore number five is the only bore that shows repeated signs of elevated uranium.”
UPDATE: ‘Acute symptoms unlikely’
HEALTH officials have moved to allay community concern releasing an extensive fact-sheet relating to uranium in drinking water.
Hunter New England Health (HNEH) has emphasised there is no further risk to residents in Moonbi-Kootingal and Bendemeer and there is large “safety margins” with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG).
According to HNEH, uranium is not known to cause cancer due to its chemical properties.
Less than one per cent of the most radioactive components of naturally occurring uranium is found in the ground.
The health effects seen in children from exposure to elevated levels of uranium are expected to be similar to the effects seen in adults.
It is also unlikely watering vegetables would lead to increase exposure.
Food and drinking water are the main sources of uranium intake for the general public.
The uranium which is absorbed is deposited throughout the body. About two-thirds of the uranium in a person’s body in the bones, most of the heavy metal that is not in the bones leaves the body in urine in one to two weeks.
Owners of private bores have once again been encouraged that groundwater should not be used for drinking or cooking, unless its microbial and chemical quality is up to standard with ADWG.
The main toxic effects of uranium are on the kidney where it may cause kidney damage or inflammation.
The full list of frequently asked questions can be found online at: www.hnehealth.nsw.gov.au/news
Exposure extent revealed
AN EXPLOSIVE report by Hunter New England Health (HNEH) has revealed Moonbi and Kootingal residents have been exposed to elevated levels of uranium since 2014.
It follows a month-long wait for results since Tamworth Regional Council informed residents they had detected high levels of uranium in the groundwater supply.
Health officials were keen to temper the findings and said “levels above the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) do not necessarily represent a risk to health as large safety margins are present”, but were unable to confirm how long uranium levels have been elevated in the water supply.
The bores in use for the supply were commissioned from as early as the 1960s.
“The ADWG state that a uranium level equal to or below 17 micrograms per litre is safe for drinking water,” population health physician Dr David Durrheim said.
“The ADWG is based on long-term exposure and incorporates large safety margins. Short-term exposure to high levels of uranium can cause kidney disease.
“However, the possible health implications of prolonged exposure to uranium at levels slightly exceeding the drinking water guideline values are uncertain.”
Dr Durrheim said HNEH was now working with NSW Health to convene an ‘expert panel’ to provide more specific advice for Moonbi-Kootingal and Bendemeer’s long-term residents.
“We have requested further information and testing from Tamworth Regional Council (TRC) and we are also seeking expert technical advice,” Dr Durrheim said.
“More information will be available for the community in the coming weeks.”
A back-up bore at Bendemeer has also been found with levels of uranium exceeding the ADWG, in HNEH’s review with levels recorded at 30 micrograms per litre.
HNEH also issued a fact-sheet to accompany their review of the Moonbi-Kootingal data.
“The main public health concern with natural uranium in ground water is not radiation (which is not very high) but with the chemical effect on the kidney,” the fact sheet said.
The fact-sheet also said “it is unlikely that any acute symptoms would develop at the levels reported”.
Moonbi-Kootingal has been supplied Tamworth town water since August 23.
TRC undertook a regular, bi-annual test for metals such as uranium in the water supply on July 12, which returned a reading of 32 micrograms per litre. A second test sample was taken on August 19, returning the same reading.
Council notified the 1100 affected Moonbi-Kootingal residents with a letter-drop on September 7.
Bendemeer also impacted
BENDEMEER'S back-up bore has shown elevated levels of uranium since it was first commissioned in January last year.
Council only made the discovery after reviewing all the data from its heavy metal testing of local drinking water supplies.
Tamworth Regional Council's water director Bruce Logan said Bendemeer’s water supply situation was “completely different” to Moonbi and Kootingal’s.
The town is normally supplied by the Macdonald River, but when the river is running low the bore on Airlie Rd is used.
“We weren’t supplying from the bore, and now we’re are not going to supply from the bore until we can come to grips with the issue,” Mr Logan said.
Since January 2015, the bore has supplied “about 20 per cent” of the town's water needs.
“On the occasions where we have tested while the bore was operating, the level [of uranium] was 0.03 [milligrams per litre],” Mr Logan said.
Moonbi and Kootingal were notified of the contamination in early September via letter drop, but Bendemeer residents haven’t recieved the same treatment.
Tiarni Heemskerk from Bendemeer Post Office said no one had mention receiving a letter from council.
“If something like that happened it would get around pretty quickly,” she said.
Mr Logan said council was waiting to notify residents until it had advice from the Department of Health about the long term health impacts.