St. Bernard Parish residents must endure high chlorine levels in their water for a while longer as the state performs tests to confirm a brain-eating amoeba no longer is plaguing the parish’s water system.
Just how much longer is not clear.
At a meeting of the Parish Council’s Water and Sewer Committee on Tuesday evening, parish officials said the so-called “60-day chlorine burn” could end by Oct. 14, almost three months after it began. But state Department of Health and Hospitals officials said earlier in the day that the burn likely would last at least three more weeks.
The burn started July 23 after DHH officials announced they had once again found the deadly amoeba in the parish water system.
The Naegleria fowleri amoeba first was found in St. Bernard’s water system in 2013 after it led to the death of a 4-year-old boy who contracted it while playing on a Slip ’n’ Slide in Violet.
While federal testing in February 2014 declared the parish system clear of the amoeba, the state began testing parish systems statewide more regularly following the boy’s death. St. Bernard was one of several parish systems to test positive this summer, the time of year when the amoeba is most active.
The ongoing chlorine burn pushes additional chlorine into the water system to help reduce biofilm — or organic buildup where the amoeba can live — and kill the amoeba. It consists of increased flushing and switching from a chloramine to a pure chlorine disinfectant.
It requires that the whole parish system reach a level of 1 milligram of chlorine per liter of water for at least 60 days.
While the burn began July 23, the parish’s system didn’t reach the necessary chlorine benchmark until Aug. 5. That meant the mandated 60-day clock elapsed on Sunday.
But DHH spokeswoman Ashley Lewis said Tuesday afternoon that “St. Bernard was directed to remain on free chlorine until the system is resampled and tested negative for Naegleria fowleri.” She said results from the expected Oct. 13 sampling should be ready on Oct. 27.
“If the results are negative, the system can switch to chloramines,” she said.
However, St. Bernard Chief Administrative Officer Mike Gorbaty and Public Works Director Hillary Nunez told councilmen Tuesday evening that the parish could stop the burn after the state’s sampling but before the results are available.
During the burn, residents have complained about the smell of the chlorine. Some say they’ve bought more bottled water because of the smell and their fear of contracting the infection.
Health officials have made clear that people cannot contract the amoeba by drinking contaminated water. The amoeba infects people only by entering the body through the nose, then traveling into the brain, where it can cause the disease primary amebic meningoencephalitis, which destroys brain tissue and causes brain swelling and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But as a result of residents’ complaints during the burn, the Parish Council last month passed a $20 credit — described as a $10 credit on water bills for each month of the burn — to compensate water users for the “extra expenses and discomfort.”
Councilman Richie Lewis, who sponsored that credit, said Tuesday that he doesn’t expect to extend the credit for the additional burn time, which now is expected to last about three months in all.
Also on Tuesday evening, parish officials said the first $2.7 million infrastructure repair contract on the parish’s water lines has begun in Arabi. It will replace cast-iron potable water pipes, some of which are more than 100 years old, with new, wider PVC pipe. The new lines are expected to improve water pressure, and thus chlorine levels, throughout the parish.
The repairs are part of $21 million in water projects made possible by the Parish Council’s decision to nearly double residents’ water and sewer rates in January.