N.C. Senate leaders decided not to call for a vote on legislation passed by the House that would have regulated the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a state senator told the Observer on Saturday.
The decision not to call for the vote by the midnight Friday deadline of this year’s legislative session came at the urging of a top state health official, said state Sen. Joel Ford, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. He said he initiated the legislation, which came soon after the June 19 death of an Ohio teen who contracted a rare brain infection after visiting the Charlotte center.
Dr. Randall Williams, N.C. deputy secretary of health services, asked Senate leaders on Thursday to “back off” the legislation, Ford said. The plan would have included putting facilities such as the Whitewater Center under regulations for public swimming pools, including water quality and testing.
Meeting those standards could cost the center about $10 million, Ford said.
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The House approved its side of the legislation on Tuesday, and Gov. Pat McCrory called last week for a “total review” of Whitewater Center oversight.
But Williams was concerned the legislation would be “getting ahead” of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Whitewater Center in addressing the regulatory issue, Ford said. The CDC has been involved in looking into the death.
Ford said that Williams urged Senate leaders to “slow down” on the legislation and instead work with the CDC and the Whitewater Center.
In a statement Saturday night, Williams said the opinion of state Division of Public Health staff, in consultation with the Mecklenburg County Health Department and the CDC, is that “without re-engineering, it’s unlikely the Whitewater Center can meet the criteria of the pool regulations.”
That includes having water clear enough to see to the bottom and having a pH of between 7.2 and 7.8, among other criteria, per the N.C. Administrative Code, he said.
“If criteria cannot be met, further study with the Mecklenburg County Health Department, the CDC and our legislators will be warranted,” Williams said .
Legislative attempts to regulate the center followed the death of 18-year-old Lauren Seitz. Park officials suspended its whitewater activities indefinitely June 24, saying water tests detected the amoeba that caused her infection.
The infection was caused by the amoeba, Naegleria fowleri. Seitz was in a raft that overturned June 8. Infections can occur when water goes up the nose.
Any legislation will have to be rewritten in 2017, Ford said. That at least gives the Whitewater Center and legislators time to ensure appropriate regulations are enacted, Ford said. He said he wants to ensure that the state neither “under-regulates nor over-regulates.”
“My No. 1 concern is safety,” Ford added. “I want our residents to have safe water.”
State Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Matthews, said he was in the Senate chamber at 10 p.m. Friday urging senators to pass the bill. Brawley, who initiated the House bill, said he was disappointed the measure never got to a Senate vote.
He said he will ask House Speaker Tim Moore to appoint a special committee to consider what should happen next with the issue, what the state’s role should be and who in state government should be involved.
The Whitewater Center is one of only three similar parks nationwide that is not regulated to help prevent waterborne illnesses, the Observer reported.
Mecklenburg County tests the water in public pools, including parks and apartment complexes, once a year for pH and disinfectant levels. State regulations require public pool owners to test pH and chlorine levels daily.
But no such standards exist for the Whitewater Center, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year to concrete channels that recirculate 12 million gallons of water for rafting and kayaking.
The legislation would have required the center and other water recreation attractions to obtain permits from the state Department of Health and Human Services and face regulation from the Commission for Public Health, which enforces state rules for water quality and testing.
As of now, the center’s sole water-testing obligation is written into its lease with Mecklenburg County for its 1,100-acre site on the Catawba River. The lease agreement requires that the center test its water once a week for fecal coliform, a widely used indicator of disease-carrying organisms.
Results are analyzed by an independent lab, and any high readings are supposed to be reported to the county.