Public calls for better communication of Lily Lake risks at town forum

Washington County Epidemiologist Fred Anderson, Washington County Director of Public Health and Environment Lowell Johnson, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health Jim Koppel and Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki serve on the panel of the Stillwater Town Hall meeting hosted by State Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo on Monday.

There were about 100 people at Monday’s town hall meeting about Lily Lake, but many left with more questions than answers after telling the panel of officials the public needed to be informed about Naeglaria Fowleri, the amoeba that lives in freshwater lakes and took the lives of two area children in the past two years.

“There was a lot of frustration with tonight. (The officials) seemed unprepared and there was a lot of ‘I don’t know’ answers. People are scared and it’s a lot less rare than the officials are willing to say,” said Heidi LaMeyer a woman from Forest Lake who believes she lost her own daughter in 2008 after swimming in Fawn Lake to the same amoeba, that causes Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM); The illness that claimed the lives of 9-year-old Jack Ariola Erenberg on Aug. 6 and 7-year-old Annie Bahneman in 2010.

When someone asked why Lily Lake wasn’t closed in 2010 after the first death, officials said there was never conclusive evidence that the lake was the source of the infection.

Bridget Bahneman, the girl’s mother, who was in the audience, said otherwise.

“We did know it was Lily Lake within a couple of weeks after her diagnosis, and then it was confirmed to us in November that it absolutely was a match, so we’ve known the whole time,” she said.

Though most questions that have already been reported in the press were answered, there were some on the panel who said they wanted to defer other questions asked to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for more information.

“Several questions that people asked are questions that we have ourselves,” said Fred Anderson, a Washington County epidemiologist. “We need to work more closely with the CDC and the Health Department to understand the organism more and find out what the indicators of the presence of the organism are so we can better serve our community.”

The panel members included deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health Jim Koppel, Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki, Director of Washington County’s Public Health and Environment department Lowell Johnson, and Anderson. They plan to meet shortly with other city officials to create plans for the lake going forward.

Thirty cases of PAM have been reported nationwide since 2001. Residents in attendance said people need to know about the amoeba and that with so many signs up about zebra mussels and milfoil why can’t they post signs about the amoeba in the lakes.

Lisa Nelson of Stillwater asked why city officials don’t post signs. “I don’t understand the reluctance to post signs,” she said. “Just put up a sign at every swimming beach so that people can take that information with them. Without warning signs educating families how to ensure their kids’ safety, it is yours — and my children — who are the lucky ones. They will survive because Annie and Jack paid the price.”

“I can assure you from my vantage point that (PAM) is a newly occurring thing and this conversation has been helpful to me to hear what your concerns are,” Koppel said. “When it comes to signs we would have to post at every lake at every swimming beach and boat launch making sure that everyone knew about the amoeba and I don’t disagree with that conversation.”

Overall, State Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo, the organizer of the town hall believes that the event served its purpose.

“I thought it was the right thing to do to gather folks who had questions and not wait until later since they’re still swimming,” Lohmer said. “My hope was to get people with answers and questions and then go back to the CDC and ask those questions that remain unanswered and I believe this accomplished that.”

She hopes to plan another town hall in the next couple of months, which she hopes a representative of the CDC will attend.