After an 18-year-old girl had a fatal encounter with the Naegleria fowleri amoeba tied to the Whitewater Center in June, officials began trying to work out a way to make the water safe again.
This is the part where it’s important to note that this type of infection is incredibly rare, and that the amoeba is present in most natural bodies of water.
With the help of the county health department and the CDC, the Whitewater Center came up with a plan.
Dr. Marcus Plescia, health director, said that all officials involved, including the Department of Environmental Quality, are “very pleased and proud” of the process that has been created.
The key was to find a way to drain and clean the whitewater channel that was both safe and reassuring to the public through plenty of discussion and the usage of resources like the CDC, who has been heavily involved.
The Center will be draining the lower pool’s water and discharging it near the Center.
The water will move through vegetation buffers before traveling into a waterway headed toward the Catawba River in two different locations.
The draining of the water is necessary in order to reach the sediment below, which is where the key to ridding the channel of the amoeba lies, officials said.
The amoeba doesn’t actually live in the water, but in the sediment.
While Plescia acknowledges that there might be “a few” of these organisms in the water being drained, the majority of them are in the sediment that sits at the bottom.
The “sludge” left behind will be pressure-washed off of the surfaces and taken to and spread over fields surrounding the Center to dry in the sunlight, which is a “very, very effective” method of killing the organism.
Because of this, no sediment will be entering the water around the property.
But the precautions don’t stop there. All 6.3 million gallons of the water impacted by the presence of the amoeba will be shocked with an incredible amount of chlorine that the health department is calling a “double precaution.”
While the experts involved believed that simply draining the water and running it through the various buffers on its trip to the Catawba River would be “adequate,” the Whitewater Center and health department have decided to go one step further and shock it with chlorine before it’s released.
In Plescia’s words, chlorine is essentially “household bleach for sanitization,” as the right concentrations can “kill any living thing” in the water.
In the lower pool, the chemical will be added to the water until it reaches a concentration of five parts per million, which is 10 times more than the concentration believed to be necessary.
When the concentration reaches that point, it will stay there for hours – they’re expecting the treatment process to take a minimum of seven hours.
Once the water has been treated, it will be drained through a series of pipes already in place and in use at the Whitewater Center.
They’re the same pipes that the Center uses every winter when they do their thorough cleaning.
Because the treated water will enter a body of water that citizens draw their drinking water from, it will run through several hundred yards of vegetative buffers in order to dechlorinate it before it reaches the creek that will deposit it into the Catawba River.
The pipes will deposit the water just north of the center into two outfalls: one that travels through 650 feet of vegetation before entering the wetland area and into Long Creek (about 1,000 feet from Lake Wylie) and another that will run through 260 feet of vegetation before hitting tributary water.
These buffers should cause the dechlorination naturally, but if not, a chemical process will be put in place.
Beyond that, compared to how much water it’s emptying into, the 6.3 million gallons is a small amount, meaning the natural dilution will be quite significant.
As of Wednesday, there’s no official date for when we can expect the water to hit these areas.
If you’re living in one of the areas that draws water from the river, don’t worry, officials said.
Though they’re working on an estimate of how long it will take, you’ll know ahead of time when they expect it to reach the water. It’s also safe for public use, as on top of it already having been filtered and the organism killed, water drawn will be filtered and treated again, as water pulled for municipal purposes is always filtered twice.
Overall, according to Plescia, this process is a “very well thought through” and safe one.
It will be very well monitored by all parties. One health department staffer is already on-site, and staff from the county, Center and health department will be consistently monitoring the conditions using field equipment.
The Whitewater Center has even gone so far as to bring in third party consultants that will lead them through this instance and their filtering process as a whole.
When it comes to the Whitewater Center itself, there’s no word on the timeline of reopening the whitewater channel.
The health department won’t allow it to be open to the public again until the community is satisfied and reassured that it’s safe because proper precautions are in place.
“That’s going to take some time,” Plescia stated.