FOX 8 INVESTIGATES: In response to amoeba, St. John officials point to separate employee errors

LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) - St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom explained what she believes was the biggest issue that lead to amoeba-contaminated water, and it's something one council member said could have been corrected.

Robottom said an employee error lead to inconsistencies between parish and the Department of Health and Hospitals' chlorine test results of Water District 1.

Though there are ongoing State Police and internal investigations, Robottom said she believes at least one employee flushed the water system before taking water samples. So, whether knowingly or unknowingly, at least one employee brought chlorine up to the state-required level before taking the water test.

However, Robottom said the flush was not recorded or reported.

Robottom said the employee or employees may have been confused by multiple required protocols.

By the time DHH tested the water as part of a new surveillance program, levels were down to little or no residual chlorine in some areas, according to DHH's Medical Director Dr. Jimmy Guidry.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Robottom said, "As we've started to look back, it wasn't a matter of fraudulent behavior but a lack of full knowledge of the implementation of the new rule. So we corrected that immediately and are continuing to do that."

St. John Council Member Art Smith said employee errors involving St. John's Water District 1 date back years.

"We weren't adding as much chlorine as we should," said Smith. "The operators weren't knowledgeable about the quality of the water."

"It's not just a similar situation. That's actually a continuation, because it started back in 2012 when we started having problems and started talking about the possibility of amoeba happening, and sure enough it did happen," said Smith.

Council meeting minutes from July 24, 2012 show a conversation between St. John's Director of Utilities Virgil Rayneri and Council Member Jaclyn Hotard. They discussed a public notice issued to residents who use Water District 1, which is the same water district that was found to have an amoeba and little-to-low chlorine levels last week.

The notice alerted residents of an "employee error" and a "failure to monitor."

According to the minutes, Rayneri said, "What happened is, is we did not follow the proper protocol. We caught the same sample twice and we missed one."

Referring to the errors, Councilwoman Hotard asked, "Where did each of them happen?"

Rayneri replied, "They were both in Garyville."

Garyville is one of the same towns affected by the low chlorine and amoeba this summer.

Regarding Parish President Natalie Robottom, Smith said, "I don't want to persecute her, but the buck stops with her, and she's the one that's got to answer the questions. She's the one that's got to take the blame for this."

Robottom said that in 2011, the employee who made the error was testing for bacteria, not for chlorine. She said that employee was removed from the sampler position.

Robottom stressed that she is taking all necessary actions to move forward and fix the problem. She said, "The perceived concern of some council members is not reflected in their actions," because some have not answered her phone calls or attended any informational meetings to learn about the current situation.

Robottom also sent this statement:

"The reason for limiting the amount of Chlorine fed to the water system is related to the by-products produced by the increased levels. These by-products result in violation of other rules, such as elevated THMs and HAAS, which are known carcinogens.

"We purchase Chlorine through the annual bid process and order cylinders of Chlorine at a time - the cost of Chlorine has never been a determining factor in any of our plant operations."

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