FOX 8 INVESTIGATES: Lawyer says St. John water inspectors were 'directed' to omit crucial data

FOX 8 INVESTIGATES: Lawyer says St. John water inspectors were 'directed' to omit crucial data

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Striking accusations in the St. John amoeba case point blame at parish management.

Kevin Branch and Danielle Roussel were charged with malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records regarding chlorine levels in the parish water system.

In an exclusive interview, Roussel's lawyer told FOX 8 that the inspectors were doing exactly as their supervisors directed.

David Belfield said Roussel and Branch were told to omit information specifically asked for by the State Department of Health and Hospitals.

"Their jobs were done exactly the way they were instructed to do," Belfield said.

Their jobs were to measure the residual chlorine levels at the beginning and end of the St. John Parish water systems.

According to the DHH, before testing inspectors can run the water for two to five minutes, and then take a sample. Running the water for that amount of time is suppose to ensure an accurate example of the water flowing through the parish.

Belfield said the process was not that simple for Roussel and Branch.

"It was a known fact that at certain readings in the parish they were not going to get the water quality sample that they were supposed to get there when they went out there and took a reading," Belfield said.

Half of  a milligram per litre is the target number, because it is what the state says is the known amount of chlorine needed to kill potentially deadly amoeba.

DHH says any reading below that measurement should be reported to the state.

However, Belfield said Branch and Roussel were directed by Parish management to never report a low reading.

"They were told that they needed, for example, a .5 reading. And if they went out and it was .4, they couldn't report that. That they had to do something to the system- They had to flush the system, contact somebody, and they had to do something to the system and then go back and take another sample until they got that .5 reading," said Belfield. "There was several steps that they had to take to flush the system, and then wait and take another reading. And then if it wasn't right they had to do the same thing again, flush the system again or come back later and check it. And if they came back later and it wasn't right they had to flush it again, and then re-take it and then boom, the number is right. Hurry up and write that number down and leave."

Fox 8 obtained blank DHH forms inspectors are supposed to write chlorine sample readings on.

In the bottom left corner, there's also a spot to include "any actions taken if the total chlorine residual is less than ___ milligrams per litre."

The state's emergency order says .5 should fill in that blank space.

However, Belfield said Roussel and Branch were told to leave that section empty.

"When the supervisor told them not to write the low readings, it doesn't matter what that little sheet of paper says. They're going to do what the supervisor told them to do," Belfield said.

A grand jury indicted Roussel and Branch Monday with GPS information showing Roussel and Branch's cars were often not at the monitoring sites - at the time the tests were recorded. Indictment papers say, "Because GPS coordinates on their vehicles show that, at the time they were alleged to have tested water samples, they were not near the site of the testing, the State alleges that they are each guilty of recording false information on the logs."

"The accusation is that the readings were not taken," said Parish President Natalie Robottom at a press conference on Tuesday.

At the press conference, Robottom wouldn't answer when asked if she was concerned about the management of the utilities department, after two employees were indicted for the same behavior while there was a GPS system in place to monitor them.

Belfield said Roussel told him why she thinks the GPS data may look confusing.

Belfield told Fox 8 Roussel said to him, "when I pulled up at the station I wrote on my paper 9 o'clock, station number 1, and then the next line is for the reading. So, I go at 9 and the reading is not a proper reading, so I can't write it on the paper. So I've got to flush the system. That might take a couple of minutes, that might take several hours."

That meant several hours of running faucets and opening fire hydrants to flush the system, Belfield said, often at the same specific testing locations.

"Now, that indicates to me that that's a major problem, and so why would that not be documented somewhere of all of the steps that you have to do to get this level correct? They told them not to write it down. Specifically told them not to write it down," Belfield said.

Belfield said Roussel had meetings with parish management and explained the arduous process she sometimes went through in order to get the readings up to .5.

But now, the water inspectors are faced with up to five years in prison for each of their charges.

"She said I never thought about, David, I never thought about making sure I wrote down exactly what time it was that the reading got to be right we were more concerned that we got a right reading at that station."

A spokesperson for DHH sent this statement:

"St. John the Baptist Water System has been required to sample for chlorine residuals for decades. What is new is the frequency and locations of sampling for chlorine, not the technique or procedure for collecting the sample.

Per the Emergency Rule, the disinfectant residual in the system must be 0.5 mg/L at all points throughout the distribution system at all times. The general rule of thumb is to flush 2-5 minutes before measuring the disinfectant residual to allow for a representative sample from the water system. We have allowed up to 10 minutes for samples collected from residences; however, continuous flushing and resampling would not comply with the Emergency Rule."

FOX 8 reached out to St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom. Her spokesperson said she would not comment because of ongoing litigation.

The State Attorney General's office said the investigation is still ongoing.

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