DONALDSONVILLE — One day after telling children and pregnant women not to drink water from Peoples Water, state health officials expanded that warning to everyone of all ages while tests on water samples collected Wednesday are pending, possibly for the next day or two.
The immediate fear Wednesday evening was no longer for high levels of chlorine dioxide, a commonly used drinking water disinfectant that can create a byproduct that threatens underdeveloped human nervous systems, but potentially harmful organisms.
State health officials said they had ordered Peoples Water Service Co. to stop using the disinfectant Tuesday once officials learned of the high chlorine levels. Tests showed those levels had dropped by Wednesday, as the chemical dissipates quickly.
But with the chlorine dioxide no longer in use, the system of 10,000 Donaldsonville customers now runs a risk of containing bacteria and other organisms harmful to anyone.
“We’re still trying to make sure the water is disinfected, so even if the chemical is less and there’s no longer a risk from the chemical, there’s still a risk from contamination of organisms that are no longer being killed by the chemical that used to exist,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health officer, said Wednesday evening.
He said it was safe to bathe and wash with the water, probably even to cook with it, though he warned there was still some risk.
Guidry said the water samples, which have been sent to a lab, were taken in Peoples Water’s distribution network.
On Tuesday night, state health officials warned that records examined during an on-site inspection of Peoples Water showed that company workers recorded chlorine dioxide levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards during the months of September, October, November, December, January and March.
The chlorine dioxide was found to be four to five times the EPA standard, DHH said. The company didn’t report the test results or collect additional samples in the distribution system to check those findings, as required by law, DHH said.
The warning set off a series of reactions as residents, school officials and restaurateurs found ways to go on without tap water.
Mayor Leroy Sullivan also declared a state of emergency Tuesday night and, by Wednesday evening, a lawsuit seeking class-action status had been filed in the 23rd Judicial District Court over the high chlorine levels and Peoples Water’s allegedly faulty testing equipment. Peoples Water and the city of Donaldsonville were the defendants.
Questions about the private water system and its failure to report test results also arise as Ascension Parish government is closing in on a bid to buy the system for nearly $6 million after negotiations since last year. The parish plans invest millions more into the system and bolster a separate parish water system that has had trouble with the brain-eating amoeba.
As a part of those negotiations last year, Peoples Water opened its books to parish officials, but parish officials said Wednesday they never saw the company’s test results.
“All testing procedures remain the responsibility of People’s Water, and DHH is its regulatory agency. People’s Water has not disclosed any testing results to the parish,” Parish President Kenny Matassa said in a statement.
The state Public Service Commission voted to give the sale its blessing last month and issued an order to that end Wednesday.
The announcement from Guidry, the state health officer, Wednesday evening about potential disinfection risks came hours after Peoples Water officials said the excessive amounts of chlorine dioxide were found only at their treatment plant in Donaldsonville — and were likely due to erroneous readings on their equipment.
They contended that the high chlorine levels were never within the distribution system that delivers water to homes and businesses.
Though DHH’s Guidry said the company has yet to provide proof of that claim, Carroll Aucoin Jr., the Donaldsonville plant’s facility coordinator, insisted that at no time were residents actually drinking unsafe water when high readings were collected last year and this year.
“There’s no evidence by any test that’s run by us or the state, at this point, that anything exceeded a level in our distribution system,” Aucoin said.
He said he believes his company’s own internal testing machinery provided high readings erroneously from samples taken at their company’s water intake on Bayou Lafourche near the Mississippi River. That is where chlorine dioxide is injected before the water is further treated at Peoples Water’s plant on Veterans Boulevard in Donaldsonville. Once treated, water is sent out to homes and businesses on the distribution system.
Aucoin said tests of water samples from the company’s water distribution system taken contemporaneously with those high samples at the plant showed that the water sent to homes and businesses at that time was safe. He said those distribution system samples were tested by his company and by a third party lab for verification.
But DHH’s Guidry said the agency has asked for the test data and Peoples Water has not provided them.
“I’ve not see any of that data. This has all been, ‘Hey, we checked it.’ Show it to me. How am I supposed to believe you checked it and it was normal when you’re not reporting things that are abnormal?” Guidry asked.
He said he is also waiting on a plan that DHH has ordered Peoples Water to provide showing how the company planned to disinfect water and prevent the harmful byproducts chlorine dioxide can create.
Though disputing high chlorine levels ever reached customers, Aucoin acknowledged company operators did fail to report the high readings in the plant. He said none of those results came across his desk, so he had no reason to look at test data stored in the machinery.
Also, tests of the distribution system at the time did not show high chlorine dioxide levels that might have raised questions. He said the operators were trained to do the testing and were entrusted to do it.
“We know we had a reporting issue. There’s no doubt about it,” Aucoin said.
When asked, he categorically rejected any notion the high test results weren’t reported because of negotiations with the parish.
Water fountains and sinks were shut down Wednesday at Donaldsonville Primary School, bottled water and hand sanitizers were gathered up, and cafeteria workers had to throw away 600 baked chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy lunches prepared in advance Tuesday for an Easter lunch Wednesday.
The children and teachers were one day from an eight-day Easter break, but smiling children at the pre-k to second-grade school filed into the lunch room late Wednesday morning.
Youngsters wearing construction-paper rabbit ears and hand-drawn rabbit noses and whiskers ate a backup Easter lunch of corn dogs, salad, fruit cocktail and pre-packaged milk or juice.
“It’s business as usual,” said Assistant Principal Tennille Lange.
Meanwhile, residents lined up in cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles on D. Thibaut Drive Wednesday afternoon to pick up two cases each of bottled water from parish sheriff’s trusties at a parish park pavilion.
“I’m shocked and I’m disappointed,” said Myra Caruso, 61, about Peoples Water after she picked up water for her hair salon.
Caruso, who was riding in her car with friend Bernice Landry, said she is worried what effect the high chlorine water will have on her clients’ hair when she does color changes.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.