Alex and Myra Arrighi of Palm Lakes Resort in Ballina discovered they were drinking recycled water after a plumbing issue at their property. Photo: Marc Stapelberg
Alex and Myra Arrighi of Palm Lakes Resort in Ballina discovered they were drinking recycled water after a plumbing issue at their property. Photo: Marc Stapelberg

‘We’ve been drinking shit’: Council's shock water mistake

ALEX Arrighi put it bluntly: "We've been drinking shit, that's what it seems like."

Due to a plumbing mistake at their Palm Lakes Resort home in Ballina, he and his wife Myra were drinking recycled water from the town's wastewater treatment plant for close to 14 months.

They had no idea and nor does it seem did the Ballina Shire Council inspector who approved the plumbing.

"We were drinking it, we were cooking with it, we were bathing in it," Mr Arrighi said.

"We did everything with it."

That also applied to the visitors the couple had in the period from when the recycled water in the estate was turned on in July 2018 through to when the plumbing error was discovered on August 24, 2019.

While the Arrighis said they had noticed a change in the taste of the water, they didn't think much of it.

Once the plumbing mistake was discovered, Mr Arrighi said he and his wife, both aged in their 80s, had sleepless nights for weeks, anxious about the effect drinking the treated wastewater would have on their bodies, as the recycled water taps are clearly marked "Do not drink".

Mrs Arrighi said she and her husband had suffered with stomach bugs regularly enough in that 14-month period to question what they were eating and now they believe it might have had something to do with the water.

Mr Arrighi said: "We were thinking something was causing it but we didn't think it was because we had been drinking recycled water.

"We put it down to everything else."

Mr and Mrs Arrighi have lived in Ballina Shire since 1968.

They moved into their Palm Lakes Resort home in May 2017.

The house had been built in 2015 and was set up for the impending flow of recycled water, which is for use on gardens, flushing toilets and the washing machine.

The plumbing error was discovered when the Arrighis returned from a Saturday morning shopping trip to discover they were not getting water from any of the taps at their home.

"We rang the council and the council worker came over straight away," Mr Arrighi said.

The council staff member knew that work was being done at the time to repair a break in the recycled water pipeline, and alerted senior staff to the plumbing error.

Council delivered a couple of slabs of bottled water to the Arrighis and the recycled water to the estate was turned off.

By Tuesday, the plumber who made the error had reconnected the pipes, and the problem had been solved.

An audit was done of other properties in the estate, but the error had only been made at the Arrighis.

Within a month of the discovery of the problem, the Arrighis took themselves off for a blood test, which particularly looked for heavy metals in their bodies, and were given the all-clear.

The Arrighis later received a letter of apology from the council and a refund of their water rates.

The council introduced the recycled water program as a water-saving measure, with 1650 homes currently connected at estates including Coastal Grove, Aspects Estate, Elevation, North Angels Beach, Aspens, Ferngrove, River Oaks, Cumbalum, Ballina Heights and Pacific Pines.

The recycled water goes through a number of "rigorous treatment processes" in accordance with national and State Government standards, according to Bridget Walker, the council's manager of water and wastewater.

"Our recycled water is treated to a drinking water quality standard and is crystal clear," she said.

Ms Walker said a number of steps were taken to avoid cross-contamination of drinking and recycled water, including identifying the recycled water outlets with purple taps and auditing the homes connected to the program every five years.

However, following this incident, Ms Walker said the council had reviewed the recycled water auditing and plumbing certification process "to help ensure this error does not occur again".

She said residents with any concerns could do their own audit.

Firstly, turn off the drinking water supply, then turn on all the internal drinking water taps and flush the toilets.

Ms Walker said the drinking water should run dry, but the purple taps connected to recycled water will still flow and the toilet cisterns should refill.

Council is reminding residents the shire currently has Level 1 water restrictions in force, but those restrictions don't apply to the use of recycled water.