FOX 8 INVESTIGATES: State Police investigate St. John Parish water records related to amoeba

(FOX 8 Photo)
(FOX 8 Photo)

State police are investigating inconsistencies in St. John Parish water records connected to last week's discovery of a deadly amoeba in the parish's water system. According to a state police spokesman, investigators are looking into allegations that members of the St. John Parish government committed fraud by misreporting the safety of its water system to the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH).

"Right now we're looking at all the information provided to us, and we're conducting interviews and basically just examining the possibility of any type of fraudulent activity, any type of criminal negligence or just perhaps some accident reporting and some mismanagement of the issues here," said State Police Spokesperson Sgt. Nick Manale.

When asked about the specific allegations of fraud, Sgt. Manale said, "DHH officials did see a lot of inconsistencies between reports, and they suspected that possibly there were some criminal acts here, some fraudulent activity."

Sgt. Manale stressed it is still very early in the investigation.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said Fox 8's report was the first time she had heard of the specific allegations. She said the parish is conducting an internal investigation as well as fully cooperating with state police. She said they've already provided police with a place to conduct their investigation, and with all appropriate phone numbers of managers in the utilities department.

In a press conference Tuesday evening, Robottom said she believed the inconsistencies were the result of lack of full knowledge of the state's emergency rule as opposed to fraudulent behavior.

"We're looking into all possibilities. It may just be an administrative issue here, or it may be something more serious that we'll have to take action with, but that's something we're going to look into and determine," said Sgt. Manale.

A DHH spokesperson said they were referring all media questions to State Police.

Manale said St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom was notified of the investigation Tuesday afternoon.

In response to the death of a 4-year-old last summer in St. Bernard Parish, the DHH required all municipal water systems to maintain chlorine levels throughout the system to the amount known to kill the amoeba, which is .5mg/L.

On Wednesday, August 27, DHH announced it had detected little to no chlorine residual and an amoeba at the end of the St. John the Baptist Parish line in Water District 1. The system services 12,577 people in Reserve, Garyville and Mount Airy.

The water system was sampled as part of DHH's surveillance program launched earlier in August. A DHH spokesperson said the surveillance system is meant to double check the findings of parish officials.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, August 27, DHH's Dr. Jimmy Guidry said, "this is one of the first areas we went to, and we found areas of low chlorine. (We) feel like we have to address the fact that what we're finding is not exactly what's being reported. So we need to figure out why that is."

According to both DHH and Parish President Natalie Robottom, St. John had been reporting that its entire water system had maintained the required chlorine level of at least .5mg/L since the emergency rule went in place.

The results of DHH's water tests in August contradicted the chlorine levels reported by St. John Parish.

In an interview on Wednesday, August 27, Robottom said, "we are not questioning those results. What we are trying to do is address and we immediately started to address the results. Prior to that, we had no indication from our readings in our sampling that we have fallen below the emergency rule, but immediately upon the lower sample readings we validated that and began adding more chlorine to the line and making sure that we were able to get back up to the .5[mg/L]."

A DHH spokesperson said when amoeba was found in DeSoto and St. Bernard parishes, there was also little to no residual chlorine. The deadly amoeba has killed two people in St. Bernard Parish, including the 4-year-old, and one in DeSoto Parish since 2011.

On Wednesday, August 27, FOX 8 requested a copy of the chlorine data St. John provided to the DHH; however, a State Police spokesperson said the documents are now part of the criminal investigation and cannot be released.

FOX 8 asked repeatedly on Wednesday, August 27 and Thursday, August 28 for the chlorine data the parish reported to the DHH, yet parish officials refused to show FOX 8 the documents. Parish President Natalie Robottom said DHH had told parish officials to direct all public records requests to state officials.

Click here to learn about St. John Parish water system's history of "compliance issues."

Health experts say the water is safe to drink; however, residents in the affected area should take extra precautions not to get the water up their nose.

Click here for more information from the parish and for precautionary measures.

Parish President Natalie Robottom sent this statement:

"We have cooperated with DHH since the Emergency Order was issued and began addressing their concerns immediately. Our efforts continued through the holiday weekend and will continue until all issues are resolved.

"In a telephone interview with Dr. Guidry shortly after 11:00 a.m. this morning, I was informed that the State Police would begin investigating the documentation discrepancy, as DHH does not handle investigations. Shortly after that I received a phone call from Lt. John Gardner with the State Police, which I returned shortly after 12:00 noon. Lt. Gardner informed me that he would be conducting the investigation and requested a contact person in the parish who could assist him with identifying employees in the Utilities Department for interviews.

Again, we pledged our cooperation throughout the investigation, and informed Lt. Gardner we are currently undergoing our own internal investigation. Lt. Gardner was directed to Stacey Cador, Director of Human Resources for all employee contact information. The District Attorney, who provides legal counsel for the parish, was contacted and advised of the pending investigation and volunteered use of his conference room for the interviews. I feel any assumption of criminal or fraudulent behavior or mismanagement are premature, especially since the investigation has not yet commenced. "