GONZALES — Ascension Parish government’s west bank water system has repeatedly violated an emergency chlorine standard this summer aimed at preventing a rare, brain-eating amoeba from infiltrating the water supply, state health records say.
Parish officials say the system serving nearly 2,150 people on the rural outskirts of Donaldsonville does not have the amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri.
But a state health official said Friday the low chlorine levels in Ascension Consolidated Utility District No. 1 mean the system does remain at risk for the amoeba. The official added the district has not undergone state tests aimed at finding the amoeba.
“Certainly, when you have a (chlorine) residual this low, we would consider that a risk,” said Jake Causey, chief engineer and safe drinking water administrator for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Parish officials say they have had a hard time maintaining chlorine levels in a spread-out system with stretches of low water use and with out-of-parish water suppliers that have not always provided enough chlorine. Parish officials are moving quickly on improvements to boost chlorine levels.
“I’m hoping we can get this done, within the next 30 to 40 days,” Ascension Parish chief administrative officer Ken Dawson said. “If I had my wish, it would be sooner than that, but I’m being realistic.”
The parasite has caused three deaths in DeSoto and St. Bernard parishes since 2011. It was found in public water systems in St. John the Baptist Parish in late August and in Sabine Parish earlier this month, state health officials have said.
The discovery in St. John prompted school officials to shut down water fountains at six schools, and parish officials have moved to do a 60-day increase in chlorine levels known as a “chlorine burn” to improve conditions, a parish spokeswoman said.
Public schools on Ascension’s west bank are served by a private company and the parish system, a school spokesman said.
Water with the amoeba remains safe to drink, DHH officials say. The amoeba is only a risk if it can enter the nose and reach the brain, such as when someone dives in or swims under warm, still water.
The department ordered the state’s more than 1,380 water systems last fall to raise the level of chlorine, sometimes called a “chlorine residual,” from trace amounts to 0.5 parts per million. DHH officials have said at 0.5 ppm, chlorine kills the amoeba.
Causey said about 98 percent of the state’s water systems meet the new standard, leaving about 25 systems per month in violation.
The Ascension water system, which DHH has divided into two sections based on the water supplier, received an extension from a Feb. 1 deadline to meet the standard but it expired months ago, Causey said.
Low chlorine levels since then have resulted in seven violation notices from DHH. Tests from July and August, for instance, showed levels ranged from 0.02 ppm to 0.15 ppm depending on the test site, according to DHH letters.
The ACUD system fed by Assumption Parish Waterworks was issued four violations for April, June, July and August, DHH online records say. That section of the system serves 1,869 people.
The ACUD system fed by St. James Parish Utilities was issued three violations for the months of June, July and August, DHH online records say. That section of the system serves 273 people.
Ascension Parish officials announced to the Parish Council Utilities Committee this week that they planned a chlorine burn and the addition of new chlorine boosters to each side of the ACUD system.
The burn raises chlorine levels higher than the new minimum standard and maintains the level during an extended period to reduce slime in the lines, which are thought to draw down chlorine levels.
Parish officials did not discuss the series of violations in the committee meeting this week but attributed the moves to reducing the cost of constantly flushing the system to maintain chlorine levels they acknowledged had slipped below the new standard.
“I like to be in a situation where we are proactive in doing this, that we are ahead of the game, and basically I think that’s indicating to our regulatory agency that we’re not just kind of sitting back waiting on things to happen,” Dawson told the Utilities Committee on Wednesday. “We are doing what’s necessary to make sure our systems are as sterile as possible.”
In a June 24 letter to DHH, Dawson wrote that while chlorine levels in water from the Assumption system had improved, levels in water from St. James Parish remained below the minimum level. He added that St. James officials knew of the problem and were preparing to install chlorine boosters.
But a Sept. 11 letter from Dawson notes that ACUD was buying its own booster, planning to install it at the Ascension-St. James parish line, and was confident the booster would fix the problem.
St. James Parish officials were not available for comment Friday afternoon. Ginger Rushing, Assumption water plant superintendent, said water leaves her plant in Napoleonville with chlorine levels at more than six times the new minimum and are above the minimum when water reaches Ascension Parish.
But Rushing said long stretches of line with low water use and warm summer temperatures make it hard to maintain chlorine levels. She said her system is adding a new $27,000 booster to improve chlorine levels down La. 70 in Pierre Part. She said many rural systems like hers, ACUD and others have struggled to adapt to the emergency rule.
“This has been the quickest law or new rule in the last 30 years. Just, bam, we’ve got to do it now,” Rushing said. “I understand it’s a life-or-death situation, but they gave no time to prepare and figure out the best way to do things. It’s been a struggle. Like I say, it’s been struggle for everybody.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.