Camelford water poisoning victims hoping for 'justice' 22 years after incident
Victims of Britain's worst ever mass poisoning hope "justice" will be finally served 22 years on, as a landmark inquest into the incident opens today.
The water supply of 20,000 people in the Camelford area of North Cornwall was contaminated in July 1988, when 20 tons of aluminium sulphate was dumped into the wrong tank at the Lowermoor water treatment works on Bodmin Moor.
The undiluted chemical turned peoples' water into a highly acidic cocktail contaminated with metals which immediately made residents ill.
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West Somerset coroner Michael Rose is investigating whether the polluted water ultimately caused the death of 59-year-old Carole Cross, who died at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, in February 2004. Her case is the first to be officially linked to the 1988 incident, although campaigners fears dozens of other deaths have passed without investigation.
Many believe their long- term health problems are linked to the poisoning and the response to the incident was skewed by the impending privatisation of the water industry.
Mrs Cross, who was living in North Cornwall in 1988, but later moved to Dulverton in Somerset, suffered from a neurological disease usually associated with Alzheimer's. An "abnormally high level of aluminium" which was found in her brain could have caused the disease.
Nigel Jones, who still lives in the same home just outside Camelford where his water was tainted in 1988, said many victims had "gone to their graves without any closure".
"I hope the truth will come out, and those who should have been held to account at the time, finally will be," he said. "The opportunity to investigate and assist future generations was lost. That was a failure of duty of care."
Mr Jones said the incident still divided the local community with campaigners being branded "hypochondriac claim-chasers".
He said this week's inquest would revive "bad memories" for many who had been left "to wonder" if their health problems, or those of family members had been caused by the poisoned water.
"I am still angry about what happened to us and I am sure that people share those feelings," he added. "It has never been about money. No-one is chasing claims, they are chasing knowledge and insight about what happened. I just wanted to see genuine remorse and an apology, that massive word 'sorry' that no-one can say. It would go an awful long way if that was said by the right people, in a heartfelt way."
This morning the inquest is due to hear from key witnesses employed by South West Water Authority at the time. Among the first to give evidence will be John Stephens, the relief delivery driver, who made the fateful mistake at the water works.
In all, 16 former staff have been called to give evidence, including the former chairman of the authority, Keith Court. Mrs Cross's husband Doug, a scientist and long-term Lowermoor campaigner, will also give evidence.
Peter Smith, chairman of the Lowermoor Support Group, said it would be "wonderful to be vindicated".
"This is the first time that the community will hear from people, on oath, who were intimately involved at all levels of the incident," Mr Smith, a Truro-based homeopath, added. "That's powerful stuff.
"It is disappointing it has taken so long, for all those people who are no longer here and those who continue to suffer without recognition.
"We will be watching and waiting to see what comes out of the inquest. But this is 22 years on and we are not pinning all our hopes on it. But we still trust and hope that justice will prevail.
"This is another chapter that is unravelling and I am quietly optimistic this will be a very valuable process."