'It's too little and miles too late. We have been abused by the system'

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You can't wave a magic wand to do away with 13 years of anxiety and impaired health, and it was perhaps unsurprising yesterday that the residents of Camelford were not convinced that the announcement of a new inquiry meant that all their troubles were suddenly over.

You can't wave a magic wand to do away with 13 years of anxiety and impaired health, and it was perhaps unsurprising yesterday that the residents of Camelford were not convinced that the announcement of a new inquiry meant that all their troubles were suddenly over.

Many were sceptical of the whole affair, feeling it would be a Whitehall whitewash as they perceive earlier investigations to have been, while others felt that only the announcement of a full judicial public inquiry would have done justice to what they see as a monstrous cover-up.

There was also a frequent note of aggrieved resentment, indicative of a group of people who have suffered both long-term nagging health problems, and the disbelief of many in authority that these are real.

And that was in those willing to talk. Many who believe themselves most seriously affected were reluctant to engage on the subject at all.

"People have not been keen about publicising their problems because they have been accused of either making it up, being slightly crazy or simply not believed," said Dave Pengelly, 43, a fisherman from nearby Boscastle, who remembers the incident clearly.

"On the morning it happened I ran the tap to make my breakfast before going out to sea," he said. "It was a mucky colour but ran clear after a while. We'd had that sort of thing before so I just drank it as normal. I didn't hear about all the problems as I was out at sea. My two children also drank it because we didn't know any better and because we were told there was nothing wrong.

"But my daughter Susan developed joint pains and I suffered skin problems, memory loss and have joint problems as well."

Mr Pengelly's joint trouble resulted in two operations to replace hips. "Of course I couldn't say for certain that the water caused my hip problems. We'll never know for certain the cause of what happened to any of us," he said.

Another man who feels what happened played a role in subsequent ill-fortune is Ray Bowler, 50, of Trebarwith Strand, who was a successful Camelford hotelier and restaurateur at the time. "I owned a 13-bedroomed hotel and two restaurants and lost them all in the wake of Camelford," he said. "Obviously there were a number of contributing factors but a lack of focus and losing all motivation was a major factor.

"I was making tea when I noticed the water was a rusty colour and tasted foul. I spat it out and the whole family started drinking bottled water but once we were told the tap water was safe I began using it again."

Mr Bowler now suffers from acute liver problems. "I am very suspicious of this latest announcement. It's too little and miles too late. People have been so abused by the legal and medical professions that residents are sceptical of anything official," he said.

Carole Wyatt, 57, a former home help, is convinced the new inquiry will be a whitewash. "I am devastated that a public inquiry is not being held," she said. "I suffered terrible stomach cramps and headaches and had numerous tests but was not allowed to see a copy of my medical records.

"Quiet by accident I eventually saw them. They showed my aluminium, copper and lead levels were way above normal, but written across my notes was a statement saying, 'Tell the patient her levels are normal'." Still suffering from memory loss, lack of balance and joint pains, Mrs Wyatt claims she was forced to accept £4,000 in compensation as an all-or- nothing payment.

"There offered me a measly £4,000, which I had to take. There has been a massive cover-up and we are still waiting for answers. I would not be surprised if things got swept under the carpet yet again," she said.

Joining her in her doubts was June Hills, 62, a former resident of Camelford who claims she still suffers from joint pain, headaches, mouth ulcers, nose sores and general exhaustion. "There are hundreds of others like me with their own horror stories to tell," she said. "The whole town would drag themselves around feeling lethargic and exhausted.

"All we have ever asked for is a full public-health inquiry ... But the news of this inquiry was given at such short notice that no one was prepared.

"People are very sceptical and have washed their hands of the affair. We are now appealing for people to come forward and say what problems they have suffered, but this will be hard because we have been accused of lying for so many years."

There was also a more sophisticated take on yesterday's announcement. Nigel Jones, 51, who lives in Camelford and is a member of the Lowermoor support group, which represents the victims, feels the Government is playing political chess. "We were also going to take our case to Europe but this inquiry may stop us doing so," he said. "The Government is trying to do what is known as time-us-out for taking our case to the European courts."

But subtler analysis or not, Mr Jones has a tale to tell of events 13 years ago like everybody else.

"On the day it happened I had a shower and was still half asleep," he said. "I couldn't get any lather with the soap and when I got out of the shower my skin rolled off on the towel. It just peeled away like sunburn. I was quite worried so I had a cup of tea. It tasted awful and then I noticed the water was pale."

Since then Mr Jones has suffered from skin and blister problems, stomach problems, bowel disorders, and a test taken two years after the contamination showed his memory had suffered a 20 per cent loss.

"It should have been a full public inquiry," he said. "That was what we wanted."