A delivery driver today told an inquest how he caused Britain’s worst-ever water poisoning outbreak by dumping 20 tonnes of chemical in the wrong tank.
Relief driver John Stephens (pictured, above) was instructed to deliver a consignment of aluminium sulphate to the Camelford water treatment works in Cornwall on July 6, 1988.
He arrived to find the depot unmanned but let himself in with a key and spent 20 minutes looking for the correct tank to deposit his load.
But when no one from South West Water turned up to assist him he opened the manhole cover for what he thought was the liquid aluminium tank.
He emptied the aluminium sulphate but did not realise he had made a mistake until four days later.
The error turned local drinking water into a toxic soup affected 20,000 people and caused vomiting, burns and even brain damage.
Yesterday Mr Stephens re-lived his fateful actions at the inquest of Carole Cross, 58, who lived in Camelford at the time of the poisoning and died 16 years later in February 2004.
The opening of her inquest in 2005 heard she had a neurological disease ”usually associated with Alzheimer’s” which could have been caused by an an ”abnormally high” level of aluminium in her brain.
Yesterday’s resumed hearing at Taunton Shire Hall heard how Mr Stephens, of Bristol, was working Bristol-based distribution firm ISC.
He was standing in for regular driver Barry Davey, who had given him a key to gain entry to the water treatment works at Lowermoor near Camelford.
A notice on the front gate stated: ‘No deliveries accepted unless SWWA staff on site’, the inquest heard.
Mr Stephens told West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose that he assumed the key would only give him access to the correct tank.
Mr Rose asked him: ”Were you told that the key would give you entry to the works and you would find the key on the left?”
Mr Stephens replied: ”Yes.”
Mr Rose continued: ”But what you didn’t know was that the water authority hand one key for every single water works in part of Devon, Cornwall and parts of Somerset.”
Mr Stephens replied: “Yes.”
Asked what he thought the key would do, Mr Stephens said: ”Let me into the site and open one tank.”
The lorry driver confirmed he had seen the locked covers on the tanks – but there was no-one on site to help him identify which was the right one.
He looked around for a phone for someone to call, but there wasn’t one available.
So he then unlocked one of the manhole covers – containing what he thought was the liquid aluminium.
Describing what happened next, Mr Rose said: ”You took out the loading arm and discharged the load into the tank.”
Mr Stephens confirmed he had – adding it had taken 30 minutes. Before he left he posted a delivery note under the locked site office door.
(Carole Cross and Doug Cross)
The ”toxic taps” disaster affected 7,000 homes and 20,000 people, polluting the water with aluminium levels thousands of times the permitted amount.
For 19 years, the people of Camelford who drank and bathed in the water protested that skin was peeling off their faces and bodies.
They reported sickness, diarrhoea, mouth ulcers, aching joints, loss of memory and even brain damage.
Hundreds of residents reported physical and mental suffering in the years afterwards but were told by three government inquiries there was no medical risk from the water.
After a 17-day trial at Exeter Crown Court in 1991, the South West Water Authority was fined £10,000 with £25,000 costs for supplying water likely to endanger public health.
It emerged that the concentration of aluminium had reached 6,000 times the permitted level.
Three years later, 148 victims accepted £400,000 in damages out of court, with individuals receiving from £680 to more than £10,000.
The two-week inquest is due to hear evidence from Keith Court, chairman of the then South West Water Authority.
He is one of 16 former staff who are being called to the inquiry, which also includes district manager John Lewis – the only staff member to face disciplinary action over the poisoning – and Leslie Nicks, the authority’s head of operations.
Mrs Cross’s husband Doug, a scientist and long-term Lowermoor campaigner, who now lives in Lowick Bridge, Cumbria, is also due to give evidence.
Speaking outside yesterday’s hearing, he said: ”We want to find out what caused Carol’s death.
”There is a lot of evidence to get through and hopefully then a decision can be reached.’