Water probe could turn criminal in St. John

Published 11:45 pm Friday, September 5, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — Louisiana State Police launched an investigation this week following the Aug. 27 announcement that water taken in an Aug. 12 sample from St. John Parish Water District 1 tested positive for Naegleria fowleri ameba.

“It is not a criminal investigation,” State Police Troop B spokeswoman Melissa Matey said. “Could it lead to a criminal investigation? Depends on what we find.”

At a Tuesday press conference, Parish President Natalie Robottom said reporting inconsistencies by parish employees, not negligence or criminal activity, may have been what led State Police to confirm they were launching an investigation into water quality records in St. John Parish.

Robottom said Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals informed her Tuesday the State Police would be launching an investigation into documentation discrepancies, as the DHH does not conduct such investigations.

Robottom said in her conversations with DHH and State Police officials, no one ever made any accusations regarding any suspected fraudulent or criminal activities.

She said resident safety continued to be the parish’s main concern, and that any involved departments would cooperate fully to ensure any reporting inconsistencies are handled.

“We’re not attempting to hide anything,” Robottom said. “If this (investigation) leads to making sure our water is safe, we’re fine with that.”

Robottom said the names and contact information of four parish employees were given to State Police officials for interviews, which Matey said have begun.

Robottom said of the four employees, two are water quality sampler inspectors, one is the water treatment manager and the other is the utilities director. She said no one has been suspended or fired in light of the ameba detection.

“The investigation is ongoing,” Robottom said. “Once completed, appropriate corrective action will be taken.”

Matey said the on-going investigation would include “whether or not procedures were followed and proper water samples were taken” and would focus on studying any inconsistencies with paperwork and procedures. Water testing and treatment, as well as resident caution, continue in St. John the Baptist Parish more than a week after the announcement the ameba, known as “brain-eating,” was detected in parish water.

The impacted water system serves six parish schools and more than 12,500 people in Reserve, Garyville, Mt. Airy and a small portion of LaPlace on West 5th Street from Acorn Street to Apricot Street.

“The concern is when water goes deep into your nasal passage,” Robottom said of the ameba, adding any potential threats could occur only when water enters deep enough into the nasal passage to cause a burning sensation.

DHH issued an emergency order requiring St. John Water District 1 to perform a 60-day free-chlorine burn to kill the ameba within the water system. Robottom said the process started at 7 a.m. Aug. 28.

State and parish authorities said the water remains safe to drink, cook with and bathe in.

Robottom said Thortnon, Musso and Bellemin Inc. and Curtis Environmental Services, water treatment consultants, are assisting in parish data collection.

She said two samples are taken daily in the affected water district, one at the point of entry at the water plant and one at the maximum resident time located at the end of the distribution line.

“The Utilities Department will test 70 sites identified by DHH once per week to verify adequate levels of chlorine are in the system,” Robottom said of Water District I. “These sites are specific to the Administrative Emergency Order issued by DHH.”

As of Thursday afternoon, chlorine levels were 2.4-2.7 parts per million at the point of entry site and 1.2 parts per million at the maximum resident site, Robottom said.

The statewide emergency rule requires .5 parts per million, but the DHH administrative order mandates St. John Parish maintain 1.0 parts per million throughout the system during the 60 days of testing, St. John Parish Public Information Officer Baileigh Rebowe said.

St. John Schools Superintendent Kevin George said precautionary measures continue to be taken at the Child Development Center, Garyville/Mt. Airy Magnet, East St. John High School, Fifth Ward Elementary, Lake Pontchartrain Elementary and East St. John Elementary, the parish schools affected by the ameba announcement.

He said the district was urged by DHH and parish government officials to close school water fountains due to the method by which children drink from them.

“We decided to use Kentwood water dispensers to make it easier for students and the district,” George said. “If we had gone with water bottles, it would have taken an enormous amount of human capital to bring out water on a daily basis.”

George sent out a letter Aug. 29 to parents of students in affected schools, saying the district strives to “be overly cautious, because your children are our children.

“We have stocked the schools with water for students to drink,” the letter states. “Our elementary schools’ faculty and staff are monitoring closely to ensure that students are being responsible in restrooms and near sinks.”

At the end of the 60 days of testing, DHH will sample the system again for the presence of the ameba. In previous cases in Louisiana, the extensive treatment action has been effective in controlling the ameba, officials said.