NC House attempts to improve Whitewater Center regulations

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The death of an Ohio teenager who contracted an infection after visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center has led the North Carolina House to back legislation a lawmaker says will make it easier for health officials to regulate such centers.

The House gave unanimous initial approval Tuesday to the measure, which also directs that drinking water from public schools with construction permits before 1987 be tested for lead.

An amendment from Rep. William Brawley of Matthews makes clear "water recreation attractions" are regulated along with public swimming pools. It also directs the state public health commission to create rules overseeing artificial whitewater facilities with recirculating water that test for substances.

Samples turned up an amoeba in the center's water. A final House vote could come Wednesday.

Call for review of whitewater center after amoeba death

Channel 9 has questioned local health officials about how a potentially deadly brain-eating amoeba ended up at the Whitewater Center.

On Tuesday the North Carolina House passed a second reading of an amendment that would allow state health officials to regulate the Whitewater Center. The House will hold a final vote on the bill Wednesday. The vote was delayed until Thursday.

From Chopper 9 Skyzoom, Eyewitness News could see water had been drained from the rafting area Monday at the Whitewater Center and people were power-washing the area.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Marcus Plescia said the drained water is now in a lower pool at the facility, but he’s not sure where it will go from there.

Plescia admitted he hasn’t seen the center’s water treatment records, because it is not regulated by the county or state. Now, that will likely change.

“I think that’s unavoidable after a tragedy like this has occurred but the concern I have is what that regulation is going to look like,” Plescia said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested water samples at the center last week and found the brain-eating amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. It’s the amoeba that led to the death of an 18-year-old girl from Ohio, who died days after visiting the Whitewater Center earlier this month.

Channel 9 asked Plescia how the amoeba was able to get into the water at the center, which is fed by city water and two wells on the property, and then further treated. Plescia said because the center is open to the environment, the amoeba can come from soil or water runoff.

"I’m not sure that I can reassure the public that it's possible to eradicate an organism from an open water source like this," Plescia said.

Eyewitness News anchor Liz Foster sat down with infectious disease specialist Dr. Frederick Cruickshank, who said even after disinfecting the rafting area is done and rafting resumes, the amoeba could be back in the water.

“The longer the air temperature stays high, the water temperature stays high, Naegleria grows very well in hot water environments,” Cruickshank said.

Of the more than one million people who visit the National Whitewater center every year, are Olympians and national kayak team members who train; including former team member Aaron Mann who Channel 9 talked to on the phone.

"I know the place gets very warm in the summer and there has been algae issues and also evaporation issues," Mann said.

The center disinfects the water with ultraviolet radiation, a filtration system and periodically, chlorine too. But Mann told Channel 9, he thinks the filters only operate when the water is pumping.

Liz Foster reached out to the Whitewater Center to ask if that's true and how often the water is pumping. She didn't immediately get a response.

In an earlier email from the Whitewater Center regarding Channel 9's questions about the specific way the center is cleaning its facility, a spokesperson replied via email: “USNWC managers and administration are working through these details at this time.”

Mann said the Olympic and national teams are fortunate they haven’t been affected by the amoeba and the teams send their condolences to the family of the Ohio teenager who passed away.

"I don't want to hear about more deaths at a place that we've been paddling every day," Mann said.

County leaders want to see more testing.

The water used at the Whitewater Center isn't regulated. Officials aren't routinely checking for the presence of the amoeba.

"I think we want to make sure that our citizens who visit it and our tourists who visit it can feel comfortable with it," Commissioner Pat Cotham said.

"We should be testing," Commissioner Jim Puckett said. "I was a little surprised to find out we don't test water quality there. We do it in pools, we ought to do it in white water."

Puckett is also pushing for more water quality testing but says it is important to remind everyone this is an extremely rare situation.

"This is a strange anomaly if you go whitewater rafting in the Blue Ridge, you might have the same problem," Puckett said.

Plescia said there is no way to tell how long the brain-eating amoeba has been in the water at the Whitewater Center; because while most people come into contact with it in fresh water, infections are rare.

Plescia stressed the Whitewater Center and the county health department cannot test for the amoeba. Only the CDC has that resource.

Plescia said he has no idea how long the investigation involving the amoeba at the Whitewater Center will last, but the center is cooperating and he wants the center to hire a consultant for the clean-up process.

"It's one of those things where I'm not sure if anyone was paying attention," said Sen. Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County. "As a legislator, I wanted to make sure that we provide the absolute best public health policies as possible."

Ford said the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services already has the authority to regulate water recreation facilities.
He wants to change state statute to make it clear that the Whitewater Center would fall under that category. That would mean routine inspections when the center is open and set state standards for water quality.

A spokesperson for the Whitewater Center released a statement last week about how water is treated:

"The U.S. National Whitewater Center sources its water from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department and two wells located on the premises. The water contained in the whitewater channels is in a closed-loop system comprised entirely of concrete. The water is disinfected with ultraviolet radiation and filtered with a disc filtration system.

“The UV system is a constant application and treats 12 million gallons of water every 24 hours, which is the total volume of the system. In addition to the UV treatment, the center periodically augments that treatment through the injection of chlorine into the system.

“The levels of UV radiation disinfection utilized every day, continuously, at the center are sufficient to ‘inactivate’ the water-borne amoeba in question to an effective level of 99.99 percent.”

Tests at the center in the wake of the teenager’s illness came back positive for the Naelgria fowleri amoeba.

"If they are getting treated city water, and they say they have a treated system that's treating the water, (and) research that I've seen shows this amoeba can't exist in treating water, then why is it even there?”

reporter Jenna Deery asked Plescia.

"I don't know what kind of maintenance system they had or what kind of treatment they were doing," Plescia said.

Questions were raised about whether anyone has verified that the center's filtration system has been working. County health officials said they trust that the system has worked, but they don't know for sure.

No one from the Whitewater Center has attended any news conferences to answer questions since the investigation started.

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