Mecklenburg commissioners approve first Whitewater Center regulations

Paddlers returned to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in August after rafting channels were reopened.
Paddlers returned to the U.S. National Whitewater Center in August after rafting channels were reopened.

Mecklenburg County commissioners Tuesday approved the first water-quality regulations of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a privately run outdoor playground an Ohio teenager visited before dying of an infection last summer.

The center closed June 24 after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the amoeba Naegleria fowleri in all 11 water samples taken there. The amoeba was linked to the death of Lauren Seitz, 18, who died June 19 after visiting the center.

The center’s whitewater channels were drained and cleaned of sediment that harbors the amoeba. It reopened Aug. 10 with an upgraded sanitation system including chlorine injection and ozone oxidation, in addition to previously used ultraviolet light.

The rules that commissioners unanimously approved require an annual operating permit from the county health department that can be suspended if the center doesn’t meet water-quality or safety standards. Water has to be tested daily. The rule also gives the health director the ability to declare conditions a public nuisance, which could trigger its shutdown.

Chief executive Jeff Wise told the board that the center supports the measure.

A major challenge in creating the 1,100-acre center – the first of its kind – more than a decade ago was how to address water quality, he said. Wise later told reporters that “we expect to exceed what those (new) regulations require.”

The Whitewater Center has been the only one of three similar parks in the nation – the other pumped-water artificial rivers are in Oklahoma and Maryland – that is not regulated to help prevent waterborne illnesses. Weekly water tests were required only under terms of the center’s lease with Mecklenburg County, which owns the site.

Commissioner Bill James questioned the maximum $500 criminal penalty the new rules allow for violations. “I guess I wondered if $500 is sufficient for what happened,” he said.

The county could later modify the rules to include civil penalties. But commissioner Jim Puckett noted that the rules allow the county health director to close the center if he finds severe problems there.

“There is a hammer in this regulation far greater than anything else we can include,” he said of the potential loss of revenue from a shutdown.

Wise told reporters he had no estimate of the financial hit to the center for closing for about six weeks at the height of last summer, or the cost of new sanitation systems.

Commissioners Vilma Leake and Pat Cotham scolded Wise for not appearing at two previous commissioner meetings where the Whitewater Center was discussed. The center has responded to media questions largely by issuing statements or through email.

“I was about to say you didn’t live, because I never saw your face,” Leake said.

“Be more transparent. We want to be a good partner, but we do need that dialogue,” Cotham added.

Wise later defended the center’s transparency, telling reporters it had received “a great deal of support and a lot of commendations from others saying how available we have been. We think it’s been a good balance.”

The rule adopted Tuesday, developed in consultation with state and federal health agencies, is intended to foster “an environment that is not hospitable to potentially pathogenic microorganisms” to protect public health.

Asked what the center will tell visitors about its safety, Wise said they are told that much of the activity there, including mountain biking and climbing, is inherently dangerous.

“The whitewater component in terms of water quality has always been an issue for us. Anytime you’re on a body of water, on a river, there are water quality issues that you have to address. ... What we had originally tried to design was to create a very, very clean river and we think we were successful in doing that for 10 years.”

Asked if there could be another amoeba outbreak, he said, “I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for me to speculate on what could or couldn’t happen in the future.”

The amoeba is widespread in warm, open waters. Infections are very rare – only 35 infections were reported in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014 – but nearly always fatal.

The CDC found the center’s water did not hold enough chlorine to prevent waterborne illnesses. A sample found 13 times more particles such as algae and sediment than properly chlorinated recreational water should have, the agency said.

N.C. Senate leaders decided in July not to call for a vote on legislation passed by the House that would have regulated the center. County commissioners began moving toward regulating the center’s water before it reopened in early August.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender