Two St. John the Baptist Parish employees responsible for testing chlorine levels in the parish water supply — an important safety measure against a potentially dangerous amoeba — were indicted on Monday, accused of faking the results of tests they never actually carried out.
Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace, and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, each face charges of malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records. The charges each carry a potential sentence of five years in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
A grand jury at 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard handed up the indictments Monday, nearly two months after the state Department of Health and Hospitals reported that tests of the parish water supply indicated the single-celled organisms were present in the water lines that service St. John’s Water District No. 1, which includes about 12,500 residents in Garyville, Mount Airy, Reserve and a small portion of LaPlace.
The amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri, has killed three people in Louisiana since 2011, though none of the deaths has been linked to the water supply in St. John.
The charges in the indictment center on allegations that Branch and Roussel failed to complete legally required water testing, then falsified testing logs to reflect work they had not done.
According to the indictment, investigators with the Louisiana State Police reviewed data from GPS systems on the parish vehicles assigned to Branch and Roussel and discovered that they were often nowhere near the testing sites when they should have been.
Branch and Roussel were supposed to collect samples from at least two parish locations, the Lyons water treatment plant in Reserve and another site in Mount Airy, to ensure that the water met required levels of residual chloride. Those findings were to be recorded in a log that would then be sent to DHH each month.
According to the indictment, from Aug. 1 to Aug. 27, Branch claimed that he collected and logged 23 samples from the Mount Airy site and 25 samples from the Lyons plant. Roussel claimed to have done the same with four samples from the Mount Airy location and two samples from the Lyons plant.
Authorities allege that GPS data show Branch did not actually stop at the Mount Airy site on at least 13 of the 23 days he logged, and Roussel did not stop on one of four days. At the Lyons plant, the data show that Branch allegedly did not stop at the site on seven out of 25 days.
“Therefore, their failure to perform those duties constitutes malfeasance in office,” because they refused or failed to perform a duty lawfully required of a public employee, the two-page indictment says.
Because Naegleria fowleri cannot be contracted by drinking the water, public health officials have said the parish water supply remains safe to consume. Most people who contract the disease — a total of 32 nationwide from 2001 to 2010 — did so after swimming in warm, freshwater bodies of water and ingesting contaminated water through their noses.
When infections occur, the water containing the amoeba enters the body through the nose and is pushed into the brain.
State health officials issued an emergency rule last year requiring most water systems in Louisiana to maintain a minimum disinfectant level of 0.5 milligram of disinfectant per liter of water throughout the system. Previous state regulations, dating from 1995, required water systems to have “trace” or “detectable” levels of chlorine.
On Monday, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, whose office is prosecuting the case, credited St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom’s administration with being “very cooperative in sharing information from their own internal investigation,” the results of which have yet to be released publicly.
“This investigation remains ongoing as additional information comes to light,” Caldwell said.
Branch and Roussel were given 24 hours to surrender to authorities in St. John.
In a written statement, Robottom said she was “disappointed” and is “committed to taking all actions necessary to make sure our water is safe and to prevent this from happening again.”
State Police began investigating the possibility of fraud after “significant inconsistencies” were discovered between reports compiled by parish employees involved in testing the local water supply and reports compiled by DHH, Sgt. Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman, said at the time.
Manale said at the time that law enforcement authorities were contacted by state health officials who became concerned that their sampling of the parish water system differed sharply from internal parish reports that preceded the discovery of the amoeba. Manale described it as “pretty significant inconsistencies.”
In light of the test results, the parish was ordered to raise chlorine levels in the water system for 60 days — a formula that officials say has been successful in eliminating the amoeba elsewhere. At that point, state health officials will test the water again.
Last year, a 4-year-old boy died after becoming infected with the amoeba, apparently on a Slip ’N Slide at a mobile home in St. Bernard Parish. The rare contaminant also was found in treated water in DeSoto Parish in northwest Louisiana.