Two former St. John the Baptist Parish workers who were responsible for testing chlorine levels in the parish’s water supply but were indicted amid accusations that they faked many results pleaded guilty Tuesday to reduced charges.
Kevin Branch, 55, of LaPlace, and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, both pleaded guilty in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard to false swearing. Branch pleaded guilty to two counts and Roussel to one count.
In October 2014, nearly two months after the state Department of Health and Hospitals reported that tests of the parish water supply showed the presence of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, a grand jury indicted the two employees on charges of malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records tied to the bogus tests. The charges carried a potential sentence of five years in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
The single-celled amoeba was detected in the water lines servicing St. John’s Water District No. 1, which includes about 12,500 residents in Garyville, Mount Airy, Reserve and a small area of LaPlace.
The amoeba has killed three people in Louisiana since 2011, though none of the deaths has been linked to the water supply in St. John.
The 2014 indictment alleged that Branch and Roussel failed to complete the required water testing, then falsified testing logs to reflect work they had not done.
Branch and Roussel were supposed to collect samples from at least two parish locations — the Lyons water treatment plant in Reserve and another site in Mount Airy — to make sure that the water hit required levels of residual chlorine. Their findings were to be recorded and sent to DHH each month.
According to the indictment, State Police investigators reviewed data from GPS systems on the parish vehicles assigned to Branch and Roussel and discovered they were not near the testing sites when they claimed they were.
On Tuesday, Branch and Roussel each were given a suspended sentence of a year in jail, plus six months of probation. Branch was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service, while Rousel was told to perform 40 hours. Each also was ordered to pay a $400 fine.
Naegleria fowleri can’t be contracted by drinking water, public health officials say; instead, infections occur when water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose and is pushed into the brain.
In 2013, a 4-year-old boy died after becoming infected with the amoeba, apparently on a Slip ’N’ Slide at a mobile home in St. Bernard Parish. The rare amoeba also was found in treated water in DeSoto Parish in northwest Louisiana.
The incidents spurred state health officials to put Louisiana’s aging water infrastructure under tighter scrutiny. The officials issued an emergency rule in 2013 that required most water systems in Louisiana to maintain a minimum disinfectant level of 0.5 milligrams of disinfectant per liter of water flowing in the system. Earlier regulations that dated back nearly two decades required water systems to have only “trace” or “detectable” levels of chlorine.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.