State and local elected officials say they are uneasy that, with no new regulations in place, the U.S. National Whitewater Center reopened its channels less than two months after a rafter died from a brain-eating amoeba.
State Sen. Joel Ford said he was “stunned” the center resumed rafting Aug. 10. Ford, a Charlotte Democrat whose district includes the facility, added that state lawmakers had expected to reconvene this winter and consider requirements by the time the center reopened at a later date.
The center closed its waterways after the June 19 death of Lauren Seitz, 18, of Westerville, Ohio. In the days that followed, lawmakers considered legislation that would regulate water quality and testing.
But Ford told the Observer that lawmakers did not act immediately because they believed the water channels would remain closed until next year.
Ford, state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who sponsored the proposed requirements, and two members of Mecklenburg County’s Board of Commissioners all said they were surprised by how quickly the center resumed water activities.
Some officials said they were under the impression that the engineering and operating modifications suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would take much longer.
“They are exploiting a loophole at the public’s expense,” Ford said. “Are profits more important than protecting and preserving life? What’s there to ensure you won’t make the same mistake again?”
A spokesman for the Whitewater Center declined an interview request.
Whitewater Center leaders have previously assured the public they have made equipment changes and taken other steps to make the park safe.
Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Marcus Plescia and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services say the center’s moves are adequate to prevent waterborne illnesses.
“They had a date they wanted to reopen and we felt they were being cooperative,” Plescia said. “They did all they needed to reopen in a safe way.”
But some elected county and state officials remain unconvinced. They worry about another death or injuries because the center previously allowed the water to become dangerous.
Newly released emails obtained by the Observer underscore their concerns.
On July 1, County Commissioner Jim Puckett forwarded a message from a park employee to County Manager Dena Diorio and another administrator.
The worker alleged that in the past, the water quality had grown so poor that raft guides routinely suffered from staph infections, ringworm and other skin illnesses. Dead animals and trash were commonly found floating on the water’s surface, the employee said.
Another email shows a county administrator criticizing Whitewater Center Chief Executive Officer Jeff Wise because the park failed to follow rules designed to protect the public during construction of a zipline. Authorities halted the project until the center obtained required permitting and inspection.
“This is a recurring issue with the Whitewater Center we are dealing with,” Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges wrote in the email dated Nov. 24, 2015. “Jeff simply doesn’t care about regulations or the agreement we have. ...Jeff’s mode of operating is the ends justify the means.”
New safety measures
Seitz was traveling with an Ohio church group when she visited the Whitewater Center. She contracted a brain infection from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba.
The amoeba is common in fresh water and infections are rare, but they are nearly always fatal. Authorities believe Seitz fell from a raft and water went up her nose.
The CDC concluded that the park’s filtration and disinfection systems were inadequate to neutralize the amoeba. Th organism was found at the highest levels ever detected by the CDC.
A CDC report distributed to county commissioners in early July said the agency “believes there need to be engineering and operating modifications before reopening” the center’s channels. It provided contacts for several consultants who design and engineer large water systems.
At the time, commissioner Dumont Clarke said it appeared it would take a “significant amount of time” before engineering modifications could be finished.
One issue, county officials have said, is that the center’s shallow channels allow water to heat up quickly. That can provide a habitat for the amoeba to thrive, they said.
In response to the CDC concerns, the center changed its filtration and disinfection system. It now includes three overlapping systems to kill or disable disease-carrying pathogens: a chlorine injection system; an ozone oxidation process, and ultraviolet light.
UV light, supplemented by chlorine, had been its primary disinfection system in the past.
The county has long required that the center perform weekly water tests for fecal coliform, a widely used indicator of disease-carrying organisms.
The Whitewater Center is now voluntarily allowing the county to monitor water quality weekly through August and then less frequently in September through the rest of the year.
Plescia, the public health director, said the county is measuring chlorine levels in the water to ensure there is enough to kill or inactivate organisms.
The county also is checking to make sure there is not too much sediment in the water channels, Plescia said. A build-up of sediment can make chlorine less effective.
Asked whether she agreed with Plescia that the center had taken the necessary steps to reopen, County Manager Diorio said she did.
The state’s public health agency did not make officials available for an interview, but referred a reporter to a previously released statement.
“We believe these plans establish a well-reasoned approach to protecting the public’s health,” the statement said.
Rise in attendance
The 1,100-acre nonprofit facility in northwest Mecklenburg sits on county land, which it rents for $1 a year on a 40-year lease that ends in 2044.
Millions of dollars in subsidies from Mecklenburg County and five other local governments helped the park survive after it opened in 2006 and the economy soured.
Today, the center attracts more than 800,000 visits a year and has total revenue exceeding $18 million, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
The center offers about 25 activities, including hiking and ziplining. But the water channels are the major attraction. Visitors pay up to $59 per person to raft and kayak.
On a recent Friday afternoon, as many as 10 rafts, each carrying five to eight riders, floated down the channels.
Cars filled about half the parking lot. Two workers said the center has seen an uptick in visitors since the water feature reopened. Attendance had fallen after Seitz’s death.
Despite calls from Gov. Pat McCrory and others for more oversight, the Whitewater Center remains only one of three similar parks nationwide that is not regulated to protect visitors from waterborne illnesses.
“It’s a sad commentary on the ineptitude of government,” Commissioner Bill James said. “It is ridiculous that the Whitewater Center determines what is public safety. That’s what we had and how we got into this mess.”
In addition to efforts from state lawmakers, Mecklenburg County commissioners are considering regulating the center, but no final decision has been made.
Commissioner Puckett said permanent rules are needed.
“They didn’t seem to be doing what they should on their own,” Puckett said. “There are things that were not taken serious or ignored.”
Emails obtained by the Observer date from 2008 through July 2016, spanning most of the park’s 10-year existence.
Some of the communications exchanged between county administrators portray the Whitewater Center as unwilling to follow basic rules meant to protect the public.
On Dec. 22, 2014, County Attorney Marvin Bethune emailed several county officials about the Whitewater Center’s plans to take out a loan for an expansion. He laid out complaints from a previous project in which the center started constructing a stage on an island without approval from county, performed the work with park staff instead of licensed contractors and did not get code enforcement inspections.
“I indicated that this course of conduct by Whitewater was upsetting to both Park and Recreation and Code Enforcement and had resulted in a series of meetings,” Bethune’s email said.
Officials halted construction until the Whitewater Center obtained proper permitting and inspection.
In a brief interview, Garges, the county park and recreation director, acknowledged it has been frustrating at times dealing with the center.
“I have to explain to (Wise) we work in the public realm,” Garges said. “You have to do a lot of things we do, no matter your opinion.”
New law coming?
Currently, state and county public health officials have the authority to shut down the Whitewater Center only if they can determine there is an imminent public safety threat.
Rep. Brawley said he plans to take action to bolster oversight of the Whitewater Center when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Brawley said he is working with State Public Health Director Randall Williams to craft a bill and build support among his colleagues.
“The broad policy questions have not been addressed,” Brawley said. “There are macro unanswered questions.”
Brawley says Williams urged lawmakers to delay the bill when it was under consideration this summer while officials sought the best way to regulate such facilities.
Through a DHHS spokeswoman, Williams refused to comment.
Ford said he doesn’t believe the water channels should be open today, based on the Whitewater Center’s past track record. He said he has heard from current and former employees that the park did not stick to a regular schedule to clean the water.
Now, Ford said, he wishes he had pushed forward with legislation in July. He said he assumed the center had the “common decency and respect for public safety” to keep the water feature closed until an agreement could be reached.
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027