TWO ministers have issued an unreserved apology on behalf of the Government to all those affected by the Lowermoor water poisoning incident in North Cornwall in 1988.
Health Minister Anna Soubry and Environment Minister Richard Benyon issued the apology today - just months after a report which suggested that exposure to aluminium, mistakenly dumped into the water supply, would cause no delayed or persistent harm.
On July 6, 1988, the water supply serving 20,000 people living in North Cornwall – from Boscastle down to Port Isaac – was turned into an acidic cocktail of metals after an error at the unmanned Lowermoor water treatment works near Camelford. Twenty tonnes of aluminium sulphate was dumped into the wrong tank at the treatment works, near Camelford
While hundreds reported immediate symptoms, from diarrhoea and vomiting to skin rashes and fatigue, many believe their health has been affected in the long term.
Campaigners have always suspected that the handling of the incident was influenced by the impending privatisation of the industry. And despite three official inquiries into the health implications of the incident, as well as an inquest, they believe further investigation is warranted.
North Cornwall’s MP, Dan Rogerson, had called several meetings with both Ministers to secure the official apology. In a joint letter, the two Ministers acknowledge that:
• “the incident was serious and unprecedented in its nature and the water authority was slow to recognise what had gone wrong and communicate this to the local public health authorities in the first instance so they could take action”
• There had been “a manifest failure to give prompt appropriate advice and information to affected consumers, local journalists and government officials”
• “communication problems resulted in a wider loss of public confidence because the incident very rapidly became national news since it occurred at a time when the future of the water industry was highly topical and also controversial in the context of plans to privatise the water authorities”
They conclude: “In light of the findings of the various investigations into the Lowermoor Water Incident we, on behalf of Government, unreservedly apologise to your constituents.”
Commenting, Dan Rogerson MP said: “This apology should have come immediately from Ministers responsible in the Conservative government at the time. Instead, for 25 years we’ve seen hedging and buck-passing. It’s very welcome that at last Ministers in this coalition Government are prepared to admit that their departments share responsibility for this appalling incident. Those affected will want to digest the contents of the Ministers’ letter before responding.
“Now we have official clarity that mistakes were made, residents in and around Lowermoor have a right to know who made those mistakes and why.
“Devon and Cornwall Police should now heed the West Somerset Coroner’s call for them to re-open their investigation – and they should find no door closed in establishing whether and how a cover-up happened.
“We also wait to hear more about the Government conducing further scientific research, as the Department for Health Lowermoor subgroup report published in April recommended, in relation to long-term health impacts on those who were exposed to the contaminated water.”
The report was produced by the Lowermoor water pollution incident subgroup of the Department for Health’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which was set up in 2001 to investigate the poisoning.
The report concluded that it was unlikely that exposure to the aluminium has caused no delayed or persistent harm, but did recommend that further research be carried out.
Former North Cornwall MP, Lord Tyler added: “We are at last getting some official candour and official answers where for a whole generation successive governments – Tory and Labour – ran a mile from admitting the negligence everyone in the area knew had clearly taken place.”
Doug Cross’s 59-year-old wife Carole died in 2004 from a rare neurological disease usually associated with Alzheimer’s.
Two leading scientists said it was “highly likely” that the aluminium found in her brain was a factor in her death.
“Twenty five years on and still they pretend that nothing really happened, on that hot July day back in 1988,” Mr Cross said.