State Police are investigating the possibility of fraud after “significant inconsistencies” were discovered between reports compiled by St. John the Baptist Parish employees involved in testing the local water supply and reports compiled by the state Department of Health and Hospitals. The discrepancies came to light last week after the discovery of a rare brain-eating amoeba in one area of the parish’s water lines.
Sgt. Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman, said Tuesday 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.”
“There was cause enough for concern that they wanted an independent agency to come in and evaluate the findings,” Manale said of the state health officials’ findings.
St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom said the parish employees’ conduct was not “fraudulent or criminal.” She said they made mistakes in following recently implemented water reporting procedures by only reporting some findings.
Manale described the State Police investigation as “very, very early” in the process. He said it would include interviews with parish officials and employees as well as reviewing water sampling reports.
At this point, it’s “too early to say that this is a criminal investigation,” Manale said, but he left open that possibility. State Police, he said, became involved “out of an abundance of caution, to examine why these inconsistencies are here between these two reports and why there are conflicts between them.”
Manale said it’s possible that the parish wasn’t following proper reporting procedures or that some of the test results reported to the state were fraudulent. He declined to say how many people had access to the reports.
If the investigation finds evidence of criminal activity, he said, it could warrant “varying charges, ranging from fraud to tampering with official documents or possibly something worse.”
St. John officials announced last week that they were boosting chlorine levels in the parish’s water system after tests by state health officials confirmed the presence of the amoeba, known as Naegleria fowleri, which has been linked to the deaths of three people in Louisiana since 2011. However, no cases of illness related to the most recent confirmation of the amoeba have been reported in St. John or elsewhere.
DHH said tests 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 part of LaPlace — the area between Acorn and Apricot streets on West Fifth Street.
Because Naegleria fowleri cannot be contracted by drinking the water, public health officials said the local 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.
Last week, Robottom said state officials sampled the parish water supply about two weeks earlier to check disinfectant levels in the water, and the testing showed lower-than-required levels of chlorine.
DHH 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.
In light of the test results, officials said, the parish needed 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.
St. John is the third parish to test positive for the amoeba in the past two years. 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. Testing of those water systems this year has not detected the amoeba, officials say.
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