DHH probing why Peoples Water never reported high disinfectant levels; Donaldsonville residents still can’t drink the water _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- As an Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office trustee, right, comes in to help, Junior Joseph, left, grabs two flats of bottled water for the waiting vehicle. Problems with the water in Donaldsonville, La.. The water is run by privately owned People's Water and the state warned citizens Tuesday night not to drink the tap water because of high levels of chloride dioxide in the water.

Nine times since September, Peoples Water’s internal testing found water at the company treatment plant contained chlorine dioxide in concentrations as much as 6.5 times greater than federal drinking water standards, even while the company told state regulators in monthly reports that the water was within those levels.

Meanwhile, a toxicologist in Louisiana said she doubts the high levels of the chemicals posed much of a health risk.

Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals officials said Thursday they are probing why Peoples Water found one thing internally about the concentrations of the chemical, a water disinfectant, but was telling DHH something else. They plan to issue a notice of violations over the reporting problem as soon as Friday.

“They turned in their monthly operating reports and none had shown an exceedance,” Amanda Laughlin, DHH chief engineer, said in an interview.

While Peoples Water officials have called into question the accuracy of their own internal tests since they came to light, Laughlin added that each one of those internal findings should have been reported to them anyway and prompted additional water tests in Peoples Water’s distribution system to see if public health was actually threatened.

The discovery of high levels of chlorine dioxide in the distribution network, which reaches people’s businesses and homes, would have been a Tier 1 violation and required the company to notify the public within 24 hours, she said.

DHH officials said Peoples Water officials were expected to finish switching over to new disinfection chemicals, chlorine and ammonia, by Thursday afternoon after the agency approved the company’s new treatment method.

But the chemicals have to be in the system for 24 hours and samples have to be taken and tested before the water is declared safe for Peoples Water’s 10,000 customers in Donaldsonville.

“So, it could be two to three more days,” Bob Johannessen, DHH spokesman, said.

On Tuesday night, DHH had ordered the company to stop using chlorine dioxide one day after officials found the test results and told the public not to let young children or pregnant women drink or eat food cooked with the water because of the risk the chemical might pose to the underdeveloped nervous systems of children and fetuses.

Then on Wednesday, DHH expanded the warning on drinking the water to all ages because the system might contain harmful organisms because of reduced disinfection levels. The orders have prompted a state of emergency from the mayor, a major parish and city effort to give bottled water to residents and restaurants have used workarounds with bottle water to keep cooking and serving patrons.

Despite the stern warnings from DHH, a Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine toxicologist said federal water quality standards have wide safety margins built into them designed to prevent health effects.

“So going above them does not necessarily mean people will get a health effect,” said LuAnn White, senior associate dean of the school.

She said any level Peoples Water might have exceeded for chlorine dioxide or its harmful by-product, chlorite, would not have affected adults. White said the concern remains with infants, young children and fetuses. She added that some studies of animals suggest that high levels of chlorine dioxide in water could affect the brain development of fetuses, but she said that would require dosages hundreds of times higher than what is being reported in the Peoples Water system.

“So I don’t think that directly pertains to this situation,” White said.

But White added she can understand pregnant mothers being concerned and said they should see their doctor if they are worried.

Laughlin, the DHH chief engineer, said state officials uncovered the high readings at the Peoples Water plant Monday during a once-every-three-years inspection after data was downloaded from the company’s testing equipment.

The agency found Peoples Water had uncovered one-day exceedances in the chlorine dioxide standard at least once a month from September to January and once again March 2, according a DHH letter to Peoples Water dated March 22.

The company found the most exceedances, three days, happened in October while the highest single daily exceedance, which was 6.5 times greater than the federal standard, happened March 2.

Meanwhile, monthly reports previously submitted to DHH from the time never showed those high results; the reports indicate the water was within federal standards, DHH officials said.

When asked if DHH officials were saying, in so many words, that Peoples Water gave them faked reports, Laughlin refused to go beyond what regulators had found Monday.

“I’m saying that the reports that DHH received did not show exceedances,” she responded.

Johannessen said the agency is looking into why the information wasn’t reported. “That’s really about as much as we can comment on that because we’re investigating it,” he said.

Ascension Parish Councilman Travis Turner, who filed a lawsuit Wednesday over the water problems and is seeking class-action status for Peoples Water customers, claims the company was hiding its results to aid its pending sale to parish government.

“It was a cover-up by the company,” Turner charged, though he offered no additional proof of this claim outside what has been publicly revealed by DHH and in news accounts.

“We cannot reach that conclusion right now,” DHH’s Johannessen said in response to Turner’s claims.

“We don’t know what they were thinking. We just know they didn’t report this to us, and they did not do the (water) resampling.”

The parish is trying to buy the system for $6 million. Parish administration officials have said they were not told about the test results as part of the negotiations.

Carroll Aucoin Jr., the facility manager from Peoples Water’s Donaldsonville plant, has acknowledged the company had problems with its reporting to DHH. But he denied the pending sale played any role in the failure to report the high results. Aucoin also questioned whether Peoples Water’s testing machine, which is fairly new, was giving accurate results.

The testing in question focused on what’s called the point of entry, where Peoples Water draws up water from Bayou Lafourche and, until Tuesday, had injected chlorine dioxide as the water heads to the company plant for further treatment.

What that testing did not address is what was happening in the distribution network supplying customers while the company was finding high results at the plant.

Though company officials claimed Wednesday they had done contemporaneous tests on the distribution system that showed water was safe, Johannessen said the company has never provided that data.

“That’s the crux for us. Without them providing any evidence that they took those other samples from the distribution system, we don’t know whether or not there was chlorine dioxide in the distribution system,” he said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.