Just over a week after a state health agency announced the presence of a potentially deadly brain-eating amoeba in a portion of the St. John the Baptist Parish water system, parish officials say an end-of-the-line water sample indicates they have exceeded the 1.0 milligram per liter minimum disinfectant level ordered by the state, by flushing the system with pure chlorine.
Samples taken at the end of line of St. John Water District No. 1 indicates chlorine residuals of 1.29 milligram per liter, Parish President Natalie Robottom said Friday (Sept. 5). A sample by the state on Aug. 12 indicated zero chlorine and the presence of the parasitic Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which led to the emergency order to flush the system.
Now, the parish must show that the elevated disinfectant level is sustained throughout the Lions water system through the sampling of 70-state approved sites, Robottom said.
After the state Department of Health and Hospitals confirms that minimum disinfectant levels have been reached, it will start the clock on the two-month chlorine burn. During that time sampling will be conducted once a week at the same 70 sites.
Robottom said they were working with DHH on Friday to finalize those sites, which will include fire hydrants and the outdoor water faucets of homes and businesses.
The state health agency ordered the elevated chlorine flushing on Aug. 27 -- referred to as a chlorine burn -- after samples taken on Aug. 12 indicated there was no chlorine in the system.
The samples taken from St. John Water District No. 1, however, revealed the presence of the amoeba, which health officials say can thrive in poorly chlorinated warm water.
That water district, known as the Lions water system, serves 12,577 people in Reserve, Garyville, Mount Airy and a small section of LaPlace.
While the amoeba can be fatal if contaminated water is inhaled into the nasal cavity and reaches the brain, parish and state officials say there have been no reported cases of illness related. The water remains safe to drink and for bathing, they say.
The parish started the chlorine burn on Aug. 28 and it can take up to two weeks to maintain the 1 milligram per liter free chlorine residual throughout the system, DHH spokesman Ken Pastorick said.
"The 60 day clock will not start until the entire system reaches 1 milligram per liter free chlorine residual. That level will need to be maintained throughout the entire 60 day time period, Pastorick said. "If it falls below that level, the clock begins again once the level is attained throughout the entire system."
Meanwhile, the State Police is continuing its investigation into the apparently inconsistent monthly data St. John sent to DHH that indicated compliance with an emergency order to maintain 0.5 ml disinfectant residual.
"We are not labeling this a criminal investigation at this time, simply reviewing the information as requested by DHH to determine the cause of the discrepancies," State Police spokesman Sgt. Nick Manale said.
Manale said the investigation could take weeks and that they are reviewing "documents, reports, water sampling findings, and personnel interviews throughout the investigative process to determine if the reporting inconsistencies between parish and DHH samples were caused by administrative issues or the product of a more serious intentional act."
Robottom said she thinks the inconsistencies may be that the level of chlorine recorded at the injection site at the plant was not high enough to yield the residual readings further down the line without flushing the system.
She points at the pure chlorine flush as an example of how the disinfectant is diluted from the start of the line to end. The parish has had to inject 2.5 milligrams per liter to yield the 1.29 milligram residual at the end of the line, Robottom said.
Some of the water sample data sent to the state indicates that 0.6 or 0.7 milligram of chlorine was injected into the system, and the end of the line readings were 0.5, she said.
"If you look at the forms and look at the patterns, I think what they may be saying is that the amount being injected was not sufficient to maintain a 0.5," Robottom said.
Instead of sending the state the initial reading that showed the below standard chlorine levels, she said it appears employees were sending only the data collected after the chlorine levels were raised by flushing the system.
"Is it criminal? No," Robottom said. "Is it a violation of the emergency order, yes."
"The investigation will determine what the missteps were," Robotttom said. " My focus right now is to fix the water."
On Tuesday, the Parish Council meets and questions about the water system may dominate that meeting. Some councilmembers have been critical of Robottom's leadership and handling of the emergency order.
"What I'm seeing right now is a derelict of duty," said Councilmember Ranney Wilson, whose district includes the Reserve water plant. "People are mad."
The amoeba detection has drawn the attention of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who according to a social media posting, is sending a representative to host a town hall meeting at a LaPlace bar and grill on Tuesday prior to the council meeting, Wilson said.