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U.S. National Whitewater Center acknowledges filter flaw following death of Ohio teenager

The U.S. National Whitewater Center drained water from its whitewater channels. The CDC said all 11 water samples from the center detected the presence of an amoeba that infected and killed an Ohio teenager on June 19 who had previously rafted at the center.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center drained water from its whitewater channels. The CDC said all 11 water samples from the center detected the presence of an amoeba that infected and killed an Ohio teenager on June 19 who had previously rafted at the center. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

When an Ohio teenager died from a brain-eating amoeba last month after visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center, officials assured the public that the park’s disinfection system was “99.99” percent effective against the organism.

But the Whitewater Center now acknowledges that algae in the water created conditions that bred organic matter and undercut the disinfectant system’s ability to minimize threats from waterborne illnesses, including the amoeba.

In written responses this week to questions from the Observer, park spokesman Eric Osterhus said authorities are asking water quality experts how to contain algae that built up in the water channels. Algae is “generally not unsafe, but it does create an environment that allows the organisms to grow and avoid the disinfection systems currently in place,” Osterhus said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the park’s filtration and disinfection systems were inadequate to neutralize the Naegleria fowleri amoeba that infected and killed 18-year-old Laura Seitz, who had rafted at the center.

New details released by the CDC this week show the center’s water did not contain sufficient chlorine for disinfection to prevent waterborne illnesses. The sample found 13 times more particles such as algae and sediment than a properly chlorinated recreational water should have, the agency said.

Cloudiness in water, sometimes called turbidity, rendered the park’s disinfection system less effective, the CDC said.

The information bolsters accounts from center visitors who have come forward since Seitz’s June 19 death, saying the center ignored their concerns about algae and water quality.

Steve Groetzinger, a kayaker who lives in Raleigh, said he spoke multiple times to workers about water he found “gross” but no action was taken to address his concerns.

“Many of us have complained about the algae,” he said. “Frankly, it does feel like the management there is a bit arrogant and never listens.”

Bob Miller, a canoe paddler who lives in Salisbury, said the center’s disinfectant and filtering problems were obvious to anyone who paid attention.

“It was very scummy water,” said Miller, 65, who said he visited the Charlotte park about three times a year since it opened in 2006. “Sometimes it would not come off your skin. You would have to scrub it off with a brush.”

The water feature has remained closed since June 24 after CDC testing found the highest levels of the Naegleria fowleri amoeba the agency has ever detected in a natural setting.

Osterhus said the center always has put a high priority on safety and responds appropriately when issues surface.

The Whitewater Center is not regulated by the state, unlike public swimming pools. At the urging of public health administrators, state lawmakers recently opted to delay legislation that would have put the Whitewater Center under testing standards that govern public pools.

Local officials have said they want to consult with water quality experts before setting any new regulations.

A lease agreement with Mecklenburg County specifies the center regularly test water for fecal coliform, a widely used indicator of disease-carrying organisms.

Documents show that weekly water tests detected fecal coliform above the state standard once since 2010.

Two former members of the park’s Board of Directors, Jim Woodward and Chet Rabon, told the Observer they could not recall being told about complaints from guests about water quality.

Rabon, a Charlotte attorney, said he stepped down from the board about 2012 after serving for 10 years.

Within two years of opening, Rabon said, park leaders fixed a problem that made the water brown. But he said that issue was “cosmetic” and didn’t pose a health threat.

Woodward, a former chancellor of UNC Charlotte, served on the park’s board for six years before leaving more than a year ago. He said he is confident that Whitewater officials will not re-open the water channel until they feel they can reasonably ensure public safety.

“They took extraordinary effort to ensure the safety of visitors,” Woodward said. “I’m no water expert, but I never saw an instance where a corner was cut.”

System questioned

The Whitewater Center has said it uses a state-of-the-art disinfectant and filtering system.

It filters water each day through stacked discs that trap particles. That is followed by ultraviolet radiation that is potent enough to “inactivate” waterborne amoeba.

But Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia has said it is now clear the system is not 99.99 percent effective against waterborne amoeba as the manufacturer had claimed. Plescia said the system was installed 10 years ago when the park opened and that authorities would ask a consultant to recommend changes.

Osterhus said park officials now are focused on reducing organic matter in the center’s water as federal health authorities have recommended.

Visitors and employees repeatedly have complained about floating algae in the 12 million gallons of recirculating water at the center.

The center, Osterhus said, is consulting with water quality experts about options it expects to be “very effective in addressing the algae as well as increasing our disinfection capabilities.”

Osterhus said the goal is to root out algae without using chemicals that pose a risk to the environment and park guests.

Asked why algae was repeatedly seen in the water, Osterhus didn’t provide an explanation. He only confirmed that algae was present in the water.

Asked if there was anything the center could have done to avoid Seitz’s death, Osterhus said that “all decisions involving operational matters are made in a careful and deliberative manner.”

The Whitewater Center did not make Chief Executive Officer Jeff Wise available for an interview.

In prepared statements, Wise has said Seitz’s death is tragic but participating in Whitewater Center activities comes with some inherent risks.

“Despite every measure we take, there is always a risk of injury or harm based on the very nature of what we do and who we are,” Wise said in a June 22 statement.

Increased risks

The Whitewater Center also has stressed that the Naegleria fowleri amoeba is found in fresh water across the United States, but risk of infection is very low. Infection occurs only if water is forced up the nose.

But Sam Perkins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, an environmental group, said the CDC tests raise questions concerning how the amoeba could thrive in waters that were supposed to be disinfected and filtered.

During a recent visit to the Whitewater Center, he inspected the water that now sits in a lower pond while authorities finalize plans to treat and dump it.

“They have got a lot of algae growing in there right now,” Perkins said. “The big thing is not to let that water get worse. Let’s get it treated. Waiting can make it more complicated to treat.”

John Rodgers Jr., an expert on ecological risk assessment and a professor at Clemson University, will advise the Whitewater Center on how to reduce the amount of organic matter in the water. Rodgers said the Whitewater Center might have been a victim of its own success.

The park struggled to draw visitors when it first opened, but during a recent one-year period it attracted about 825,000 visits for sports activities, music concerts, races and other events, according to records filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

That makes it more likely that someone could contract a waterborne illness, Rodgers said.

“When they first opened they might have had 30 or 40 Olympians training there, but it certainly has grown,” he said. “It is analogous to loving a national park to death. They bring diseases, germs and depressed immune systems. The chances of someone being exposed goes up.”

Staff writer Bruce Henderson contributed to this story.

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