THE GOVERNMENT has issued an unreserved apology to the victims of the Camelford water poisoning incident – but campaigners say it's 25 years too late.
Health Minister Anna Soubry and Environment Minister Richard Benyon issued the apology on Friday in a letter to local MP Dan Rogerson.
The move came after a report into what was Britain's worst mass poisoning, at the Lowermoor treatment plant in 1988, suggested that exposure to aluminium, mistakenly dumped into the water supply, was unlikely to have caused delayed or persistent harm.
It was on July 6, 1988, that 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 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate were 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 the handling of the incident was influenced by the impending privatisation of the industry, and despite three official inquiries into its health implications, as well as an inquest, say further investigation is warranted.
In a joint letter, the ministers said: "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."
They added that there had been "a manifest failure to give prompt appropriate advice and information to affected consumers, local journalists and government officials" and that "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 concluded: "In light of the findings of the various investigations into the Lowermoor water incident we, on behalf of Government, unreservedly apologise to your constituents."
The North Cornwall 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 their departments share responsibility for this appalling incident.
"Those affected will want to digest the contents of the ministers' letter before responding," he said.
"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 reopen 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's Lowermoor subgroup report published in April recommended, in relation to long-term health impacts on those exposed to the contaminated water."
April's 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 had caused delayed or persistent harm, but did recommend that further research be carried out.
A former North Cornwall MP, Paul, now Lord, Tyler, said: "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."