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'How many mistakes can be made until we have a death?' Council members demand action in response to amoeba

St. John Parish dropped below required public safety measures at least twice since the Department of Health and Hospitals implemented an emergency rule last year.

The violation in August was described as an employee error, and the violation in March was described as an oversight. On Wednesday and Thursday, council members said mistakes and oversights are no longer acceptable responses to water problems in St. John.

"Clearly we're gambling with people's lives," said Councilman Michael Wright.

Employee errors have been blamed for water violations in St. John Parish dating back to 2011. However, it was the parish's first violation of the emergency state rule that was put in place after a 4-year-old died of amoeba in St. Bernard Parish last summer that sparked intense debate in a council meeting on April 8 of this year.

According to council meeting minutes, on April 8, Councilman Madere stated, "I understand you said it was an oversight, but we already had two oversights tonight," and Natalie Robottom interrupted, "Well that is life.'"

On March 24, DHH sent notifications to St. John residents that the parish's Water District 2, in Edgard, was in violation of the emergency rule to raise chlorine levels to .5mg/L in order to prevent amoeba.

"If the state says five, then we better be at five. Don't tell me about one point something or 4 point something - no, the answer is five," Madere said on Thursday.

Part of St. John parish came in at .48.

On April 8, Parish President Natalie Robottom and Utilities Director Virgil Rayneri both told the council they thought the number was close enough.

"We are getting a response our reading was .48 the criteria is .5. If you round it off it is .5," Robottom said, according to council minutes and video.

Lennix Madere Jr. was one of the council members who made clear that he didn't think rounding was appropriate.

"We are not grading papers where you round it off to the next number. Either you hit it or you don't hit it, and that is the bottom line," Madere said on April 8.

The Utilities Director described how the oversight would be fixed from then on by flushing the system more often so chlorine could better reach the towns at the end of the water line.

Last week, the DHH double checked the parish's tests and found little to no chlorine levels and an amoeba in Water District 1, which affects parts of LaPlace, Garyville, Reserve and Mt. Airy. Those towns are also at the end of the water line.

"We're told that there's an issue, there was an error made, we fixed it and everything is fine moving forward. Six months later we find out there's a deadly [amoeba] in our water system servicing almost 13,000 residents," said Wright.

Madere said on Wednesday that he worked with the Department of Health and Hospitals to learn how to take water samples and fully understand the new state protocols.

"I went to the state department myself and learned how to run a sample in less than 10 seconds," said Madere. "Ok, it's not hard."

"In the last couple of years we've seen a re-occuring factor in employee sampling error, and I think that's more of what raises a concern," said Wright.

On Wednesday, Robottom said errors have been corrected in the past by removing the employee who was found to have made a mistake from the sampler position.

"How many mistakes are we going to have before there's a death?" said Wright. "If there's an employee mistake with each employee, then we need to find it. If it's training, we need to find the problem. If it's a management problem, we need to fix the problem. If we need to have individuals step down from their positions, that needs to happen. But we cannot keep having mistakes and having lives, almost tens of thousands of lives, at risk."

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