DHH: Before amoeba, St. John Parish water system had other public health 'compliance issues'

Water treatment facility (Source: FOX 8 News)
Water treatment facility (Source: FOX 8 News)

LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) - St. John Parish began a chlorine burn on Thursday to rid part of its water system of a deadly brain-eating amoeba after chlorine levels were found to be too low.

FOX 8 learned this wasn't the first time the parish failed to meet public health requirements for the water system.

According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), the parish was already in the middle of a multimillion dollar upgrade to its water facilities in order to address past problems.

"Certainly, the St. John water system has had compliance issues in the past," said Jake Causey, DHH's chief engineer and safe drinking water administrator. 

Causey said between 2005 and 2011, St. John had a problem with high levels of dis-infection byproducts. 

"Those have been some reoccurring issues historically," said Causey.

Most recently, Causey said, there had also been issues with the level of total organic carbon (TOC) in the water system, which is supposed keep the disinfection byproducts in check. 

"I believe just this past quarter they did not meet the TOC reduction; however, their byproduct levels were below the maximum level," Causey explained. "Filters will definitely improve water quality, help reduce more organics in their finished water which will help keep these byproducts levels down." 

For filters and for other upgrades, DHH awarded St. John Parish with a $5.5 million loan. 

The project started with new altitude valves, which help determine when certain water storage tanks should open and close, according to Causey. He said that addition will also help maintain chlorine levels and therefore control amoeba. 

"That's important so that those tanks can all operate and function properly, draw down to the right levels and then fill back up, and so that turnover of water within those storage tanks is certainly an important aspect of maintaining a good chlorine residual," said Causey.

A more immediate effect on the chlorine levels should come with the chlorine burn, which is already in place. 

"We are sending free chlorine through the system. That will take place for 60 days," said St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom at a press conference on Thursday. 

The chlorine burn should not only kill amoeba, but it should also have a more lasting effect.

Causey said the burn also eliminates biofilm and bacteria that consume chlorine. Those organisms can build up in pipes and tanks of water systems that regularly use an ammonia and chlorine based disinfectant called chloramines.

Causey said St. John uses chloramines as its regular disinfectant, as did the other two parishes where amoeba was found.

"That was the similar case that we had in both St. Bernard and DeSoto," Causey explained.

The state is researching what facility upgrades and chlorine level changes will keep amoeba out from now on.

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