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Mecklenburg County may regulate Whitewater Center

The U.S. National Whitewater Center drained water from its whitewater channels.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center drained water from its whitewater channels.

Mecklenburg County commissioners took halting steps Wednesday toward regulating water quality at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where an Ohio visitor contracted a fatal infection in June.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, the county health director, told the board that the center has agreed to a plan “to create an environment at the Whitewater Center where this organism cannot live anymore.” Chlorination could kill the amoeba that caused the teen’s death, he said.

Plescia proposed that the center install chlorination equipment, test it to make sure it works – and then set formal standards enforced by the county, likely through a new rule regulating the center.

“We have two choices. We can let the state do it or we can do it,” said county manager Dena Diorio. “The position of Mecklenburg County has always been that we cover our own areas.”

That set off an extended discussion on the county’s legal ability, or willingness, to regulate a private enterprise whose customer died. Some commissioners were irked that no one from the Whitewater Center appeared at the meeting.

“It really is the responsibility of the Whitewater Center to have a system in place that doesn’t put customers at risk of serious injury or death,” said commissioner Dumont Clarke. “I’m almost inclined to say why don’t we just leave it up to them to fix it?”

Bill James: “How do we know the system they put in place actually works? … My concern in the past is that their press releases have been like pep rallies: ‘Oh, there’s nothing to see here.’ I just want more disclosure.”

Commissioner Vilma Leake said she’s “not willing for us to spend a dime” on regulating the center. Plescia said regulated entities typically pay fees to cover county costs.

George Dunlap and Matthew Ridenhour disagreed with Leake, saying the county is obligated to make sure the center’s water is safe.

“I think we do have to step in here, and I know that coming from a libertarian-minded Republican that sounds nuts,” Ridenhour said. A lot of folks in the community feel that trust has been broken, and they’re looking for someone to step in.”

The board agreed to take no action and wait for further updates.

The Whitewater Center drained about 6 million gallons of water into a tributary of the Catawba River on Saturday.

Water discharge began just before 6:30 a.m. Saturday and should be concluded around midnight, a Mecklenburg County spokesman said in an email.

State environment officials approved the plan to use high levels of chlorine to inactivate the amoeba, remove the chlorine and drain it into Long Creek, a tributary of the Catawba.

The Whitewater Center closed to whitewater rafting on June 24, five days after Lauren Seitz, 18, of Ohio died of an infection caused by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba.

Officials believe Seitz contracted the waterborne illness at the Whitewater Center when she fell out of a raft and water went up her nose. Infections from the amoeba are extremely rare but almost always fatal.

The center said last week that the whitewater channels would be cleaned once all the water was drained, and that it expected to reopen them soon afterward.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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