State environmental officials announced Wednesday they have approved a plan that would take water from the U.S. National Whitewater Center suspected in the death of a teenager and drain it into the Catawba River.
Under the plan, authorities would use chlorine to treat about 6 million gallons of water containing the potentially deadly Naegleria fowleri amoeba. They would remove the chlorine once the parasite is inactivated and dump the water into the river.
“We are confident that the extensive monitoring requirements in the discharge plan will protect water quality in the Catawba River,” said Tom Reeder, assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s important to remember that the amoeba is naturally occurring in lakes and rivers, but after review by many stakeholders we believe this plan offers the best possible protections for public health and the environment.”
The Whitewater Center said in a statement that it expected to begin the 24-hour process Wednesday. Once all the water has been drained, the cleaning of whitewater channels will continue.
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“The timeline for reopening whitewater activities is still being determined, but we anticipate resuming whitewater operations shortly after completion of this process,” the statement said.
Some local government officials and residents have expressed worries about putting the water in local waterways because the amoeba can cause deadly infections. Infections are extremely rare but nearly always fatal.
The 225-mile-long Catawba River is a drinking water source for more than 1 million people.
“At this point, we’ve reviewed the discharge plan and we’re comfortable with it,” said Jimmy Bagley, deputy city manager for Rock Hill, which gets drinking water from the Catawba River. “We’ll continue to receive information throughout the process, and of course we regularly monitor and test source water to ensure the drinking water meets quality standards.”
Sam Perkins of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, an environmental group, said he had input into development of the plan and recommended that it include water tests for contaminants such as excess chlorine, which can be toxic, and for adequate levels of dissolved oxygen, which fish and other aquatic life need.
Perkins said the center will use a process similar to that used by wastewater treatment plants. “If this plan is executed and monitored as it should be, it will be protective of water quality,” he said.
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.
The Whitewater Center has drained water from the upper channels used for rafting and kayaking. All of the water now sits in a lower pond.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the Mecklenburg County Health Department have reviewed the plan for disposing the water, DEQ said.
The released water will travel through vegetated buffers, which help absorb pollutants, before reaching Long Creek at two points. The creek flows into the Catawba.
The discharged water will be tested for pH, residual chlorine, dissolved oxygen and turbidity at the two discharge points. Long Creek will also be tested, and the draining will be halted if samples show elevated levels of those four constituents.
It’s expected to take 24 hours to drain the pool, beginning the day after DEQ’s approval. It’s unclear whether that refers to Wednesday or Thursday.
At a press conference Wednesday, Mecklenburg County officials tried to assure the public the water removal plan would be handled safely.
Dr. Marcus Plescia, county health director, said that the amoeba lives primarily in the sediment that builds in the water.
The sediment from the Whitewater Center will not go into the Catawba River, Plescia said. Instead, he said, the sediment will be dumped in a land area where it can die off.
“We have decided to go above and beyond” to ensure the process is safe, Plescia said.
“The water will be tested thoroughly,” said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s water quality chief. “If anything goes wrong, we will know it immediately.”