The U.S. National Whitewater Center, which temporarily closed last summer after a visitor’s death from infection, can’t open for whitewater sports this year until Mecklenburg County issues a newly required permit, officials said Friday.
The center had apparently planned to start the year’s whitewater activities Saturday, according to its website calendar that scheduled a “water release” starting at 11 a.m.
But county officials say the center only applied for a permit – a new requirement after the visitor’s death, effective Jan. 1 – on Feb. 23. The county said it will review the application and inspect the whitewater center before issuing the permit.
“The whitewater system may not open for public use until an operation permit has been issued,” the county said in a statement. Environmental health officials took media questions on the center Friday morning.
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“The U.S. National Whitewater Center is working closely with Mecklenburg County officials through the newly established permitting and inspection process,” the center said in a statement Friday. “We have filed all the necessary paperwork with Mecklenburg County, and at this time, are awaiting their next steps as they work diligently through this new process. Whitewater activities will resume as soon as we have officially received the permit.”
The center was the only one of only three similar facilities in the U.S. that wasn’t regulated to protect the public from waterborne diseases, the Observer reported after the death last June of Ohio visitor Lauren Seitz.
Seitz, 18, died of a rare brain infection caused by a single-celled animal, the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, after visiting the center on June 8. 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 center closed its man-made whitewater channels in June as public health officials investigated. It reopened on Aug. 10 with an upgraded sanitation system.
In October, Mecklenburg County commissioners required 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.
“We have no intention to hold them up, but at the same time, we are not pressured to meet that Saturday deadline,” WSOC quoted Lisa Corbitt, program manager for Mecklenburg County, as saying. “They have told me when they would like to open, and I have communicated back (that) we are going to walk through this process and make sure everything is correct.”