HK lacks truly independent water quality watchdog, lawmaker says after lead scare at new housing estate

20-Jul-2018 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:32 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong lacks a truly independent water quality watchdog, a lawmaker has said, as the prospect of lead contamination reared its head again after samples from a new public housing estate were found to contain excessive levels of the heavy metal.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan’s remarks on Thursday came a day after she revealed test results for eight flats in Kwai Chung. Four of the water samples collected showed excessive lead content.

The findings, announced by Wong and party member Andrew Wan Siu-kin, prompted the city’s Water Supplies Department to plan more water tests for affected flats in Kwai Tsui Estate, which has 866 units for 2,400 people. The estate was opened to residents in April.

The Democrats conducted their tests after two residents complained about cloudy water from the taps.

Hours after the announcement of the results, the Water Supplies Department and Housing Department said they would conduct more tests for the affected flats.

On Thursday, Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun said preliminary test results could be released within the day, although he refrained from commenting on what follow-up measures the government would take subsequently.

Water trucks would also arrive at the estates to supply clean, potable water to affected residents, he said.

“As for the details the figures, the causes I will not speculate as we must ascertain the facts first. That is, whether the samples meet or deviate from the standards,” the minister added.

The departments said that building contractor Hip Hing Engineering had tested the water as required after the internal supply systems had been completed, and the results were within safety limits.

During a radio programme on Thursday, Wong said it was strange that there were such large discrepancies in the test results, given that the party had also used a government-accredited laboratory. She suggested that the government findings were wrong or could have been fudged.

“It’s about the safety of the supply of materials used. Sure, you have a standard, but can you guarantee in your monitoring that they are really installing the pipes that you have authorised and not cheating?”

She also said the city lacked a water safety watchdog that was truly independent.

Wong said little had changed since a lead contamination scandal rocked the city in 2015, apart from the adoption of different standards and methods for water testing, as well as stronger regulatory control of plumbing materials and plumbers.

“These measures are still very far off from the comprehensive potable water legislation that the Democratic Party has proposed,” she said.

The government last year proposed that a “Water Quality Regulator” be set up under the Development Bureau, which also heads the Water Supplies Department.

Wong said that while frontline workers were held accountable, professionals such as building engineers, architects, contractors and even government bureaucrats were still free from liability.

Can you guarantee that they are really installing the pipes that you have authorised and not cheating?

Helena Wong

In the latest tests, one sample from a flat in Luk Tsui House had 104 micrograms of lead per litre, more than 10 times the World Health Organization’s standard of 10 micrograms per litre. Another sample from the same block contained 16 micrograms per litre, while two samples from Bik Tsui House contained 16 micrograms per litre and 10 micrograms per litre respectively.

Water Authority representatives confirmed that the soldering material at the pipe joints was lead-free.

Officials added that it was normal for there to be a relatively high amount of metal leaching from new copper alloy fittings in the initial stages. This would rapidly drop to a low level after a week to several months of usage.

They suggested that new residents flush the supply system for 15 minutes twice every day for the first three days. Residents were advised to let the taps run for at least two minutes before collection if they wanted to consume tap water.

The Democratic Party lawmakers urged the various government departments to disclose their earlier water test results and to inspect the pipes.

In the 2015 incident, water samples from 11 public housing estates, six kindergartens, 15 schools and two public hospitals were found to contain excessive levels of lead. More than 160 people were found to have elevated lead content in their blood.

The government spent millions delivering bottled water to affected residents who were afraid to use tap water.

A commission led by a High Court judge concluded in May 2016 that leaded solder in the pipes had directly caused the contamination, even though, on paper, the Housing Authority, Water Supplies Department, their contractors and licensed plumbers were all supposed to use lead-free solder in fresh water pipes.

In June 2016, two former directors from a subcontractor that oversaw plumbing work at three housing estates affected by the scandal were arrested for allegedly forging documents to cover up lead solder deliveries to two of the affected estates.

On Thursday, Wong said of the previous fiasco: “Unfortunately, the government protected its own officials and said no one was negligent and no one needed to be accountable.

“They even felt that the former director of water supplies was worthy of a medal.”

Former water supplies chief Enoch Lam Tin-sing, heavily criticised for his handling of the tainted water scare, was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star a civic honour bestowed on those who have taken a leading part in public affairs over a long period by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor this year.

Ng Kim-sing, a Kwai Tsing district councillor and Democratic Party member, said he had not been shown any results on the follow-up water quality tests from replaced pipes at the affected estates in the previous scandal.

“All they would tell me is simply that they are up to standard,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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