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By Jason Brown

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 27 2001 – Cook Islands News)--Suspicions are growing over the deafening silence coming out of the Ministry of Health about lagoon water test results on Rarotonga.

Health ministry officials have also repeatedly ignored calls over the last two and a half months for them to officially advise the public on whether lagoon waters are safe to swim in. Or not.

Possibly the biggest and most urgent environmental issue ever faced by the country, marine pollution from sewage and erosion is also causing tremors in the booming tourism industry.

No comprehensive results have ever been released from three series of tests, with the first conducted on February 7, 2001.

This is despite Tourism Marketing Corporation head Chris Wong last month saying results should be released.

Other sources outside the media have recently reported they have had no luck getting the results from Health either -- further raising safety fears.

Marine Resources last month joined the Health ministry in its testing program -- and clammed up straight away too.

Overall, the government is spending NZ$ 448,998 (US$ 189.349) on health management.

One responsibility, according to the budget, is for Health to provide monthly reports, press releases and health reports on health related issues.

The budget states Health management should achieve "increased knowledge and understanding of the provision of health services for the people of the Cook Islands." But senior health officials have long concealed health problems from the public who pay them to monitor those same problems. Comprehensive national statistics have not been released since the 1994-95 annual Health report.

This time is no different.

At first, health officials held back test results from Muri lagoon because they did not want them subject to "reckless interpretation" by the media.

Then the officials said the results were of "no value" because of the way they had been taken.

Health later backtracked to say the results were "significant" enough for the ministry to order some properties to empty their septic systems.

But a third official then refused to release a second series of tests saying they were "inconclusive" and also of no value.

At the end of March, government media services quoted a visiting World Health Organization environmental health expert, Dr. Donald Sharp, as saying, "I think at this point in time there is no need to worry."

But Dr Sharp was not available for questioning by the independent media on issues like how WHO health standards compare to those of developed countries like New Zealand and America.

Test results were still kept secret.

There are about 61 tourism properties around the country listed in the Yellow Pages, with only 40 of those under the Cook Islands Accreditation Scheme. About 12 different properties are in Muri alone, with buildings right next to the beach. But, even if EIAs have been carried out on all new buildings and extensions, Environmental Services has ducked for cover too. They say Environment Services does not hold the authority to dictate sanitation standards and point the finger back at Health.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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