We applaud the N.C. House for supporting a bill to put the U.S. National Whitewater Center under state water quality regulations and testing.
It promises to bring welcome new water quality oversight to the largely unregulated whitewater operation, and seems a necessary step following the June 19 death of Lauren Seitz, the Ohio teenager who contracted a rare brain infection from a common freshwater amoeba.
The tragedy seemed to leave local health and whitewater center officials at first perplexed, then uncertain about whether or not the center’s whitewater operations should immediately be shut down.
To be sure, as Mecklenburg County health director Marcus Plescia has told the editorial board, the amoeba – Naegleria fowleri – is common in warm bodies of freshwater across the United States.
Even so, it has infected just 35 people nationally in the past decade.
Thus, in a June 22 open letter to the public, center director Jeff Wise couched Seitz’s death as a lamentable but unlikely-to-be-repeated tragedy. He expressed confidence in the center’s “state of the art” water filtration and treatment systems.
Officials unwisely left the center’s whitewater operation open to the public, only to close it two days later as the full scope of the problem came into clearer focus.
Now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chlorination and ultraviolent filtration systems were so inadequate that results of all 11 water samples tested found the amoeba present.
A CDC official calls the results “significant” and at levels the agency has never seen.
Meanwhile, county health and whitewater officials acknowledge that they aren’t certain they can eliminate all chances of future infections, given the fact that stormwater – and living organisms – can easily flow into the center’s channels.
It all leaves the public rightfully worried, and skeptical about future assurances of safety from whitewater officials.
The center is the only one three similar parks in the nation that is not regulated to help prevent waterborne illnesses. The House bill represents a prudent move to correct that. Even if we can’t be 100 percent sure the amoeba will never endanger another paddler, we nevertheless need to make sure the water is as safe as possible.
Oversight by state regulators would surely help.
Given the now-clear health risk, as well as the millions in public dollars that went into launching and sustaining the center, officials must take strong (and transparent) steps to regain public trust.
An overhaul of the center’s water treatment systems certainly appears to be in order, no matter how expensive that might be.
House Bill 1074 is a good start on regaining public confidence. We hope it wins final approval in the House, and the Senate as well.