The day after a brain-eating amoeba was discovered in a rural water district in Ascension Parish, the state rejected a previous request by the parish to proactively boost the level of disinfectant in the system.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals discovered the deadly Naegleria fowleri amoeba in a water sample it took Tuesday in Ascension Consolidated Utility District 1 on the west side of the Mississippi River.
In the midst of responding to the crisis, Ascension Parish, through its water-treatment consultant, received a letter the following day from DHH rejecting a request the parish had made earlier this month for a permit to install a chlorine “booster station,” said Ken Dawson, chief administrative officer of Ascension Parish government.
The parish had also wanted to do a proactive “chlorine burn,” injecting additional chlorine for several weeks throughout a portion of the water system.
On Wednesday, a DHH official said the department doesn’t require a permit to do a chlorine burn.
But Dawson said Thursday it was a permitting process that stymied the parish in its attempt to be proactive.
“The $64,000 question is, why was I allowed to do a burn when amoeba was found,” Dawson said.
John Ford, a DHH press officer, said in an email late Thursday night that the agency “has no records of any application for a permit to install a booster station in the water system currently affected by the ameba.
“Ascension Parish has only applied — on June 25 — to chloraminate their other, unaffected water system. This application did not meet the required health standards, so on July 2, the Department sent the parish a list of requests for additional information to correct the problems with its application.”
On July 29, he said, the parish responded, but “as this response did not correct the problems with the initial application, the Department sent a denial letter on July 29, again noting the information required to correct the problems with the application and continues to work with parish to create an effective treatment plan that meets all health standards.
“In the meantime, the parish has agreed to implement the Department’s request to conduct a chlorine burn in the system that did test positive. …”
As Dawson tells it, Ascension Parish in early June began a process with DHH to try to begin its proactive chlorine burn in one portion of the water district, with plans to later do a proactive chlorine burn in the remaining portion, where the amoeba was later found.
“We wanted to be proactive. We know if there is biomass in a system” that’s where the Naegleria fowleri amoeba can live, Dawson said.
“We know these (water) systems are old,” he said. “Our goal is to be proactive and get these things done.”
In addition to the chlorine burn, the parish wanted to install booster equipment to feed additional chlorine, first in a small part of the district served by water purchased from St. James Parish, and then later in the larger part of the district that is served by water purchased from Assumption Parish.
The parish applied for a permit with DHH on June 19.
On July 7, the parish heard from the DHH that “while a permit is not required for the burn, a permit will be required for the chloramine booster station. In order to begin the burn, you will need to get the equipment for the booster station permitted so that 1) the equipment used for both burn and booster is permitted, and 2) the system can go straight into chloramination upon completion of the burn,” according to an email from a DHH employee.
“This system is a little different in this case because they currently have no feed equipment or disinfection. Most other systems that propose a burn have equipment and disinfection already in place,” the email goes on to say.
On July 20, the parish submitted an application for a booster station for the part of its system served by water from St. James Parish, Dawson said.
This week, the parish received a letter from DHH, dated July 29, the day after the amoeba was found, saying the plans submitted by the parish had been rejected by DHH, pending resolution of several technical items.
On Wednesday evening, Ascension Parish began injecting additional chlorine into the main water line for the area where the amoeba was found.
The higher level of chlorine treatment will continue for 60 days to kill the deadly Naegleria fowleri parasite.
The parish has opened 11 fire hydrants, as well as valves at three flushing stations in the district to push the chlorine through 39 miles of pipe, Dawson said.
The goal of the chlorine burn is to get the level of chlorine up to 1.0 part per million, Dawson said. The state mandate is 0.5 part per million.
At the level of 1.0 part per million, Dawson said, there are free chlorine molecules in the water that he likened to “having soldiers with bullets.
“If I have a bunch of soldiers with bullets — the free chlorine — it tells me I still have soldiers to kill the enemy,” he said, referring to the amoeba.
Residents served by the district can drink the water but should not let water go into the nose, the pathway the amoeba can take to the brain, state health officials have said.
In Louisiana, the Naegleria fowleri amoeba has killed three people since 2011. Two of the deaths happened that year, one in St. Bernard Parish and one in DeSoto Parish. In each of those cases, the person was infected with the amoeba through the use of a neti pot, a home remedy thought to clear the sinuses.
In 2013, a child in St. Bernard Parish who had been playing on a Slip ’N Slide died after water infected with the amoeba got into the child’s nose.
St. Bernard Parish is also currently under a 60-day chlorine burn after the discovery of the amoeba earlier this month at a sampling station in Arabi in that parish.
Guidelines for residents whose water supply is contaminated by the amoeba can be found on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/prevention.html.
“The residents (in affected areas) need to follow the special precautions on using the water until DHH can confirm the burn was effective,” said DHH spokeswoman Ashley C. Lewis.
Lewis said DHH will conduct two rounds of amoeba sampling after the 60-day chlorine burn is completed and resample every summer.
Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.