Officials concerned over whitewater center reopening


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — State and local elected officials have expressed concerns that the U.S. National Whitewater Center has reopened its channels less than two months after a rafter died from a brain-eating amoeba and with no new regulations in place.

The Charlotte Observer reported (http://bit.ly/2bH8325) State Sen. Joel Ford said he was “stunned” that the center resumed rafting on Aug. 10. Ford, whose district includes the facility, also said state lawmakers had expected to reconvene in Raleigh this winter and consider new requirements. Ford also told the newspaper that lawmakers believed the water channels would remain closed until next year and thus didn’t act immediately.

The center closed after 18-year-old Lauren Seitz of Westerville, Ohio, died on June 19 from an infection caused by an amoeba naturally present in warm fresh water.

Ford, state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who sponsored the proposed requirements, and two members of Mecklenburg County’s Board of Commissioners all said they were surprised by how quickly the center resumed water activities.

Some officials said they were under the impression that the engineering and operating modifications suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would take much longer.

“They are exploiting a loophole at the public’s expense,” Ford said. “Are profits more important than protecting and preserving life? What’s there to ensure you won’t make the same mistake again?”

Brawley said he plans to take action to bolster oversight of the Whitewater Center when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Brawley said he is working with State Public Health Director Randall Williams to craft a bill and build support among his colleagues.

“The broad policy questions have not been addressed,” Brawley said. “There are macro unanswered questions.”

A spokesman for the Whitewater Center declined an interview request from the newspaper, and the center didn’t immediately respond to an email sent Saturday seeking comment.

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Marcus Plescia and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services say the center’s moves are adequate to prevent waterborne illnesses.

“They had a date they wanted to reopen and we felt they were being cooperative,” Plescia said. “They did all they needed to reopen in a safe way.”

But some elected county and state officials remain unconvinced. They worry about another death or injuries because the center previously allowed the water to become dangerous.

Despite calls from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and others for more oversight, the Whitewater Center remains only one of three similar parks nationwide that is not regulated to protect visitors from waterborne illnesses.

“It’s a sad commentary on the ineptitude of government,” Commissioner Bill James said. “It is ridiculous that the Whitewater Center determines what is public safety. That’s what we had and how we got into this mess.”

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