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Investigation sought into substandard plumbing at retirement complex

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Report from RNZ by Phil Pennington
A Lower Hutt mayoral candidate is calling for a full investigation into a retirement complex with substandard plumbing.

Councillor Campbell Barry said if he were mayor he’d introduce a “no-surprises” policy around such important matters.

An audit done in mid-2018 and obtained this week by RNZ found mass non-compliant plumbing at the Woburn Apartments which the council signed off.

It was an operational issue that he had referred to his chief executive when he found out in February this year, Mayor Ray Wallace said.

Mr Barry said he would expect council staff to brief him much earlier in cases like this. The mayor should have launched an investigation straight away, after an investigating plumber warned him there were serious health hazards, Mr Barry said.

“Because, it isn’t good enough what has happened and we need to know what role council could have played to ensure that this didn’t happen and it won’t happen again in the future,” the mayoral aspirant said.

The council’s chief executive Jo Miller, who has been in the job just two months, has not responded to RNZ about whether she would begin an inquiry.

Mr Wallace refused to be interviewed.

The council has said it won’t inspect the repairs to the plumbing, partly to avoid liability for them and partly because it said it was legally unable to do so because it had already issued a Code Compliance Certificate.

The Masonic Villages Trust has relied on Virtual Plumbing, which installed the original defective plumbing, to do some repairs including crucial sealing off of pipes open to sewers. This was being independently monitored, it said.

However, the list of repair contractors and consultants does not appear to include a registered craftsman plumber.

The trust aims to build another complex in Wainuiomata.

“We absolutely need to have reassurances that that is built in a way that is safe for our elderly, for our seniors and our community, that’s absolutely crucial,” Mr Barry said.

The trust has refused all comment since issuing a single statement on Tuesday, other than to tell RNZ that it was not “at the point of selecting contractors” for Wainuiomata and won’t do so until the end of the year.

Report from RNZ on September 13
Emails show the mayor of Lower Hutt was told in February that bad plumbing in a retirement complex was life-threatening. But earlier this week, before the emails and plumbing audit were released to RNZ acting on a tipoff, mayor Ray Wallace claimed he was told only that there were “a few issues with leaks”, and these were “operational matters”.

All 96 apartments, worth up to $700,000 each, at the Masonic Woburn apartments had plumbing that two lots of investigations said was a severe or serious health risk.

The emails also show most repairs did not start for eight months, and the council refused to go on site to inspect the repairs out of fear of liability.

Robin Wright quit as the maintenance manager at the adjoining rest home last November, partly in disgust at what went on since he was first alerted in May 2018.

“Some people who owned one of the apartments called out to me and said, ‘Rob, we have an extremely bad smell over in our apartment’. So I went over and had a sniff and I said, ‘Yeah, crikey I said it smells like sewage’. And they said, ‘That’s what we’re thinking’ … I said, ‘It’s mainly in your kitchen’.”

He called in certifying plumber Mike Stevenson, and their checks revealed nine apartments had faulty floor wastes or traps that were not sealed with water (like an S-bend in a toilet) so had been venting from the sewer since construction. Another 20 wastes in shared areas were also not sealed.

Residents told Mr Stevenson of frequent foul smells in the complex’s communal bar and meeting area called Bar West, and he established this came from two faulty wastes. Next, they found all the showers had bad drainage.

“So we put a piece of wire in underneath, and found we could go the whole width of the shower and we pulled it up, moss and mould and gunge out of there.”

If it had been his own, or his parents’ shower, he would have been worried. “Yes, hell, yes,” Mr Wright said.

They also found backflow preventers were missing and untempered public-access taps had scalding hot water.

The Masonic Villages Trust has said tests that it would not release showed there had never been any health hazard – the sewage smell comes from hydrogen sulphide which can cause respiratory and other problems at chronic low levels of exposure.

The daughter of a woman who lived in one of the worst apartments said her mother kept picking up bugs but was dismissed by the complex’s managers as a nuisance.

“Mum did have some ongoing tummy troubles around the period this seems to have been happening,” said the woman, who RNZ agreed not to name. “So we’re now wondering whether it was related – we’re checking with her GP to see whether she considers it might have been a factor in mum’s sicknesses.”

Her family found out about this on Wednesday from RNZ’s reports.

They and their mother had a right to know, from the very first, she said. “If we’d known that we could have raised that with the GP when mum was sick so often. Absolutely unimpressed, and I think everyone in that complex should be aware of this and, as far as I know, they haven’t been formally informed.”

The Masonic trust told RNZ it would not be providing any further information.

Mr Wallace also refused to be interviewed.

He wrote an email in February this year to council chief executive Tony Stallinger, immediately after the investigating plumber Mr Stevenson had phoned him, “I have just had a call from the tradesman who has worked on the Masonic facility … he has said this building has serious and dangerous compliance issues,” Mr Wallace wrote.

“He has said he notified Hutt City Council in July 2018 and believes nothing has been done about this life-threatening issue. Can you please advise what the council is doing.”

Earlier this week, before the emails came out, Mr Wallace told RNZ that Mr Stevenson “didn’t really identify himself” in that call, that the problems were “operational” only, and “an issue for the Masonic Trust and their private residents and tenants”.

Yesterday he issued a statement: “The mayor was contacted by a concerned person … and immediately referred them to the then-chief executive … to follow up as it was an operational matter.

“The mayor was subsequently advised that officers were taking the matter seriously and communicating regularly with the property manager as repairs were carried out.”

The February emails show the chief executive told the mayor this, but also that the trust wanted the repairs inspected.

“Repairs are being done, albeit probably not to Mike’s [Stevenson’s] satisfaction,” Mr Stallinger wrote to the mayor. “Note, we won’t be inspecting that work as it does not require a building consent. In fact we advised against going on site to inspect as we could assume some liability in that circumstance.”

In fact, the major repairs had commenced only two weeks before this email, on 28 January, eight months after the first discovery.

The emails show the trust was tied up with legal, architectural, and engineering issues.

The repairs still are not finished.

Mr Wright cleaned out the showers straight away in June, and then spent months filling up the floor wastes by hand to stop gas seeping in, till he quit his job in November. He does not know if this filling carried on.

“I feel that when the first major report went in from Mike, had so many things that should have been looked at within days.

“And we actually took quite a while before we actually went to a meeting with the board and with the builders. There was still nothing done.

“Lots of talk was going on. But I think they were waiting to find out who was to blame before they were going to do anything.

“I was getting a bit rundown after all this crap and even Mike was the same. And I’d get a bit angry with my partner and stuff and I was saying, ‘This is unbelievable’.”

He said he rejected the city council’s claim that its inspectors could not access concealed spaces to check the plumbing, and so signed it off based on the plumber’s say-so.

“They could’ve checked the same way that we checked [with the wire].”

The city council did not get the July audit until February 2019, when Mr Stevenson sent it to the council off his own bat.
Timeline

2013-2015 – First stage of Woburn Apartments built
2016- 2017 – Second stage built
2018

May – Foul smells reveal defects; Hutt City Council alerted

June-July – Audit by certifying registered plumber; showers and wastes cleaned

July – Trust complains to Plumbers Board. Board begins inquiry, alerts health authorities and police to death of a resident, though says it isn’t known if the plumbing issue had had an impact on the resident’s health

July-Sept – Air and water tests (not released)

Aug-Jan (2019) – Masonic Trust caught up in “a multitude of issues that hover around the remedial work”

December – Six showers out of 88 fixed
2019

Late Jan – repairs recommence; Trust asks for council inspections – council says ‘no’

Feb – Mayor Ray Wallace alerted

March – Unsealed pipes still undergoing temporary fix

May – 37 showers fixed, 51 not fixed; valves in 86 apartments checked, fixed

July-August – Consultants check repairs

Sept – Repairs still not signed off.

Report from RNZ on September 11
A Lower Hutt retirement complex is in damage control after bad plumbing left elderly residents exposed to noxious sewer gases and bacteria build-up in all the showers.

Plumbing investigators alerted the police and public health authorities, and even questioned the death of a woman who lived in a particularly badly affected apartment in the upmarket suburb of Woburn.

However the owner, the Masonic Villages Trust, said while the plumbing is bad, tests showed there had been no health hazard. It refused to release those test results.

The plumbing woes came to light from an anonymous tip-off to RNZ, more than a year after an audit by a certified plumber reported “unsafe” showers in all 96 of the nearly new apartments built since 2015 – consented and signed-off by the city council despite the mass non-compliance.

However, Hutt City Council senior manager Helen Oram said that with concealed plumbing the council depended on a registered plumber’s say-so, and with this project the plumber gave the council statements certifying that backflow preventers had been installed, even where they weren’t.

The audit also found that in nine apartments, valves meant to seal floor gully wastes never worked, allowing an open path into the open kitchen-living rooms for noxious sewer gases. This was also the case at 20 other gully wastes or traps in the complex.

One of these gases, hydrogen sulfide, can depress the sense of smell.

“All uncharged floor waste gullies are considered unsanitary plumbing and as such constitute a severe risk to health,” the July 2018 audit said. Some also had lots of mould in them.

The audit said the waste valves would have to be manually topped up every three weeks until they were repaired.

As for the showers, each had a metre-wide drainage channel that was not properly connected to the drainage pipe.

“Over time this air gap produces in some cases very large amounts of organic growth which generally cannot be seen by residents and constitutes a serious health risk,” the audit said.

Pictures showed various coloured and hairy moulds.

Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace said he was aware an audit had been done by the trust and that someone – an “ex-tradie”, he recalled – had told him about problems some months ago, but these were “operational matters”, “not widespread” with “a few issues around leaks”.

His mother-in-law lived there, and “I wouldn’t allow family members to be in a facility where there was genuine or serious risk to health”.

The complex also lacked backflow preventers at its hair salon and spa – crucial to stop chemicals getting into the Hutt water supply.

After the audit, the Masonic Villages Trust laid a complaint with the Plumbers Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board.

The board then wrote to the Hutt police commander, chief medical officer, chief executive of the DHB and the council chief executive giving its preliminary view.

“We have already identified evidence of significant unsatisfactory sanitary plumbing in this retirement complex,” the board chief executive said.

“Unsatisfactory sanitary plumbing issues have the potential to be hazardous to people’s health.

“The elderly are obviously vulnerable to health hazards. I therefore conclude that it is necessary that I bring matters to your attention on an urgent basis.”

The board also noted the death of a woman in one unit shortly before the audit.

“We don’t know if this plumbing issue directly or indirectly impacted on that resident’s health (and we do not have the mandate, expertise or medical information to investigate this, ” it said.

The board’s investigation has only just finished and the board told RNZ as the matter was ongoing it would not yet make its final ruling public.

The Masonic Villages Trust put out a statement denying there had been any hazard to elderly residents.

“Based on water and air sampling, and the advice received from qualified and experienced consultants, we are satisfied their health and safety has not ever been at risk,” it said.

The trust refused to release the test results, which it said it received in August and September last year, two-three months after it was first alerted to the plumbing risks, and between two and four years since the apartments were built.

It told the board in July 2018 showers and floor wastes were being cleaned and flushed, and measures taken to prevent backflow where preventers were missing.

The trust chief executive, Warick Dunn, refused to be interviewed and hung up last week when RNZ asked for the audit.

A manager at the apartments asked RNZ reporters to leave, and would not let them talk to residents yesterday.

Two elderly men playing table tennis at the apartments had only a vague awareness of any plumbing problems.

However, one resident told RNZ by phone that he only had a “licence to occupy” and was clearly worried if he was seen to speak up.

More than a year on, repairs are still not complete. In some cases, repairs failed and had to be repeated several times, and some residents were moved in and out several times.

The trust said it regretted the disruption and has apologised to residents.

The subcontractor, Virtual Plumbing, that did the original non-compliant work, was involved in repairs, which were being peer reviewed.

“We are hopeful that the final signoff of the remedial work will be received soon and life at Woburn will return to normal again,” Mr Dunn said in a statement.

“Despite the fact that the apartments had only recently been completed by licensed and reputable building contractors and consultants, and that the work had been subject to inspections by architects, engineers, and the council that had given its approval by issuing code compliance certificates, unfortunately some of the plumbing work fell short of what should have been delivered.”

Building inspectors could not see the bad plumbing as it was in concealed spaces, the council said, so it relied on the registered plumber to ok the work.

However, RNZ understands the tiled shower channels are relatively easy to look under.

The council released the audit promptly to RNZ.

An email in March this year to the Hutt council showed the Plumbers Board was prosecuting the “registered person [plumber]”.

The plumbing subcontractor, Virtual Plumbing, has not responded to RNZ’s approaches for comment, nor has the main contractor Armstrong Downes Commercial.

The Masonic Villages Trust has 11 retirement complex sites nationwide and is developing a new retirement village in Wainuiomata.