It is likely Wellington will have gone a year without fluoride by the time the Te Marua treatment plant is fluoridating water again.
Wellington Water turned off fluoride at Te Marua in May last year , followed by the Gear Island plant last November. Because of ageing fluoride machinery, the plants had been fluoridating water inconsistently for the past four years.
Until last month, the water company did not tell anyone in affected areas – Wellington, Upper Hutt, Porirua, Stokes Valley, and Manor Park – or their shareholding councils across the Wellington region. The failure is now the subject of an independent inquiry.
Thursday’s update on restoring fluoridation said Wellington Water was making progress on checking the fluoride machinery, and had found a more suitable fluoride powder for the plants.
A key piece of equipment – the baffle curtain – at the Te Marua treatment plant cannot be repaired until May. Because of the Easter break and staff absences as a result of Covid-19, divers could not safely assess the damaged parts of the baffle curtain this month.
Wellington Water staff have to check the operations of the entire facility before beginning to fluoridate water again. The checks include removing residual fluoride from the equipment, testing components, and checking the computer automation system.
If the checks show the machinery is not meeting standards, both broken fluoride plants may have to be replaced by temporary solutions. This short-term solution would be setting up standalone fluoride facilities in containers.
At Gear Island, where there are health and safety issues with the plant, the standalone container is the only short-term solution.
Wellington Water continues to purchase new parts for the container facility at Gear Island, but said global supply issues meant it could not provide a timeline on when the container will be ready to go.
The water treatment plants at Waterloo and Wainuiomata continue to fluoridate water for the rest of the region. In the long-term, Wellington Water said that all four fluoridation plants for the Wellington region will need to be replaced.
Daran Ponter, chairman of Greater Wellington Regional Council, who own the four water treatment plants, said Wellington Water’s management of fluoridation was “confronting” and raised concerns about the state of all water assets in the region.
Greater Wellington has requested a full report on the condition of its water assets and whether they have faced similar deterioration to the fluoride machinery. They plan to introduce a performance reporting system for fluoridation to ensure they are not left in the dark again.
He said it was “very much the case” that they would have expected Wellington Water to keep them in the loop about the deterioration of fluoride dosing machinery.
Ponter agreed there were concerns about the speed of getting fluoridation back up and running, but said it was “not simple”.
“It is what it is, in relation to logistics,” he said. “They seem to be moving as fast as they can.”