Heber Springs mayor: Health department mishandled beach closure

By Tammy Keith Originally Published June 30, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2013 at 10:17 a.m.
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Nick Hillemann

Carter Graham, 8, of Heber Springs, left, and his brother, Josh, 10, build a sand hot tub on the recently reopened Sandy Beach in Heber Springs.

Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson said last week that he is still upset over the Arkansas Department of Health’s handling of E. coli testing at Sandy Beach, which is open after being closed for a week.

“I’m not going to be the scapegoat,” he said.

McPherson said that after the city implemented procedures that a health department employee gave him and being given the OK to open the beach on Greers Ferry Lake, health department officials then told him and the media that he was in violation of state law for doing so.

“The whole thing’s just been a mess,” McPherson said. “The health department — apparently, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

Ed Barham, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Health, said there was “monumental miscommunication” within the department on Father’s Day weekend that led to the situation.

He said Dr. Nate Smith, interim director of the department, has apologized to McPherson and that internal policies were reviewed.

McPherson said that late on June 7, he received a call from Darrell Norton, environmental specialist at the Cleburne County Health Unit, who told him to close the beach because of a high E. coli reading.

McPherson said officials believe the E. coli could have come from Canada-goose droppings.

The mayor said he was suspicious of the high levels because the city’s water department tests didn’t show a problem.

“We’ve been testing ourselves and getting excellent readings,” McPherson said.

However, McPherson said, he not only closed the beach on June 8, but he also hired security so that no one could reach the lake by boat or shore.

“We went above and beyond to keep people from coming in from the lake and the land side,” he said.

“We wanted to make sure everybody was safe. Again, we were shocked” at the readings, McPherson said.

“We stayed close in communication with them [state officials],” who continued to draw water samples, McPherson said.

Two back-to-back acceptable E. coli readings must be achieved before a beach can be reopened, said Terry Paul, branch chief for environmental health at the Arkansas Department of Health.

Sandy Beach has gotten its acceptable readings and is open, officials said.

McPherson said that on June 14, he got a call from Tom Jones, environmental health specialist with the Department of Health.

The mayor said he held a conference call with Jones and five or six Heber Springs officials, including Kent Latch, water department general manager, and state Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs.

“Tom called us — we didn’t call him — he said, ‘I think I’ve got a solution,’” McPherson said.

McPherson said Jones gave suggestions to mitigate the problem with the geese, particularly spraying the beach with a disinfectant solution.

“He said if we did those things, we could open the beach Saturday morning (June 15). So, that’s what we did,” McPherson said.

As soon as he opened the beach, McPherson said, he was met by television reporters who told him the health department said he was in violation of state law for doing so.

“That really made me mad because I had done exactly what I was told to do,” McPherson said.

About five minutes later, McPherson said, he got a call from Norton with the Cleburne County Health Unit, asking him why he reopened the beach.

The mayor said he also got a voice mail from Greg Hogue in Jonesboro, regional environmental manager for the state Department of Health, telling him that legal proceedings would begin.

McPherson said Hogue said “that he’d been informed that I opened the beach without proper authorization — that he’d spoken with Tom Jones and that Jones did not give us authority to open that, and he’d contacted their legal department and they’d turned that over to prosecutors, and he suggested we shut the beach.”

McPherson said he was “livid” over the situation and called Hogue.

“[I] gave him a piece of my mind,” McPherson said.

Terry Paul, who is Jones’ supervisor, said, “I do know there’s been a big misunderstanding with this whole deal and some miscommunication.”

“We can go in and shut down a beach if it’s being completely neglected — I’m not saying they’re doing that.”

“We let them know there are hot samples, and it’s up to them to close it or mitigate it.”

Paul said although he wasn’t in on the conference call, Jones wasn’t saying the beach could be reopened the next day.

“That’s not exactly what he meant, but that’s how it was taken. We’ll have to lick our chops on that and move on,” Paul said.

McPherson said there was no question that Jones said the beach could be reopened.

“There was no gray area; there was no other way to interpret it,” McPherson said. “He said, ‘You do these things, and you can open it in the morning.’

“He absolutely, without question, there was no misinterpretation — there was no other way we could interpret what he said except that we could open it Saturday morning. Six people in the room heard him say it.

“I went above and beyond what I had to do to protect the beach, … and I only did exactly what I was told to do.”

Latch, general manager for the Heber Springs Water and Wastewater utility, agreed that Jones said during the conference call that the beach could be reopened the next day.

“He gave us a directive as to what we could do to open that beach up, and that’s exactly what we did,” Latch said.

Latch said he and two other officials applied the disinfectant to the beach.

Latch said Jones told them, “‘If you don’t have any residual, you’re good to go in the morning.’ And we had none. I told the mayor we had none, and the mayor elected to open the beach.”

Barham said the problem was that no one talked to Jones and knew that he’d approved the reopening.

Barham said that when

media started calling about the situation after hours — and told state officials that Sandy Beach was open — the last word the health department had was that the E. coli readings were too high and that the beach was supposed to be closed.

He said department officials told a television-station employee that penalties exist in the law, which include $1,000-a-day fines, for opening a closed beach.

Barham said, according to state law, “it’s true that we have the authority to close a beach or a restaurant or other places. We do have that authority; that’s the law,” he said.

“What we want to do is work with people so they can continue to operate their businesses and have their beaches open. The thing we didn’t do well enough is communicate,” Barham said.

He said Jones was out of state and could not be reached to verify that he OK’d the opening of the beach.

“We couldn’t confirm it with Tom — and he was the one who talked to everybody on the conference call,” Barham said.

Jones said he was in Texas to attend a wedding.

When asked if he told Heber Springs officials the beach could be reopened that Saturday, Jones said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

“We’re working on our problem, and the problem is about 100 Canada geese. Period,” Jones said.

“I told [McPherson], ‘This is what will make the beach, in my opinion, become a safe situation,’” Jones said.

Jones said the Cleburne County Health Unit followed his direction to test Sandy Beach, part of a schedule Jones sets for private beaches.

“I set the schedule [for testing] for the state of Arkansas,” Jones said.

“We’re not doing anything new,” Jones said. “The Cleburne County Health Department was doing what it was supposed to do.”

“Darrell [Norton] did a good job, and I’m backing up what he did,” Jones said.

McPherson said he doesn’t fault Norton, but he still believes the first test was wrong.

“I think Darrell was trying to do his job to the best of his ability, and again, so were we,” McPherson said.

“The breakdown in communication happened at higher levels,” McPherson said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased Sandy Beach to Heber Springs last year, McPherson said, and is no longer responsible for testing it.

Paul said local health units “pull the samples on beaches or outdoor bathing places that are on record that the Corps are not pulling samples on. They all send them to our lab for analysis. The city has taken over Sandy Beach, but our guys have been pulling samples.”

“This is an advisory program — looking for hot spots, things of a concern to that particular beach. In this case, it did just exactly what it’s supposed to do. It found the geese,” Paul said.

McPherson said he doesn’t think the local health unit was drawing water samples from the correct depth.

“We felt like they were drawing samples from too shallow water to get a good sample. We were questioning that,” he said.

“We do have geese down there; if you draw, it’s going to show

E. coli,” McPherson said. “It doesn’t give you a true example of the quality of the water as a whole.”

McPherson said that when he asked Jones to send the written procedure for drawing water for E. coli samples, Jones told him he uses “common sense.”

The mayor said guidelines from the Corps of Engineers are that samples should be taken from deeper water than the health department drew its samples from at Sandy Beach.

“I take the samples, and I’ve trained people how to take the samples,” Jones said. “The Corps might have a different procedure.”

“We appreciate them coming in every day and trying to get good samples,” McPherson said.

McPherson said Smith, interim state health department director, called him and apologized “for the inconvenience.”

“I said, ‘It’s more than an inconvenience,’” McPherson said.

“I’m never going to go against their wishes. The city becomes liable, and I’m never going to put anyone in harm’s way,” McPherson said. “They led us to think we didn’t have any choice in it. The director finally admitted they’re just advisory.

“Again, we’re never going to take that chance. I told the director we should be working together — not this back and forth and flexing our muscles.”

McPherson, who has been Heber Springs’ mayor for seven years, said, “I’ve never, never dealt with a state agency that reacted this way.”

Paul said the health department would work to improve its internal communication.

“We’re going to be much more clear on our conversations and our correspondence,” Paul said.

“The only thing I can say is, it’s been, needless to say, a poor communication effort,” Paul said. “The bottom line is, we had a beach that needed some attention, and it got attention, and we’re just trying to make sure it’s safe for everyone involved.”

McPherson said the beach will be open for the Fourth of July holiday this week for the Fireworks Extravaganza, one of the bigger events in Heber Springs.

“The beach is safe, and we’re confident of that,” McPherson said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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