New Brunswick

Tourism officials won't answer questions about Parlee Beach discrepancies

The Department of Tourism won't answer questions about major discrepancies in how its staff assigned water quality ratings at Parlee Beach over the past three years.

Data shows staff posted good water quality ratings even when fecal bacteria reached 20 times the safe level

Documents released to CBC News after right-to-information requests reveal days when Parlee Beach Provincial Park staff gave the water a better rating than it should have received under Department of Health guidelines. (CBC)

The Department of Tourism won't answer questions about major discrepancies in how its staff assigned water quality ratings at Parlee Beach provincial park over the past three years.

Documents released after right-to-information requests reveal days when park staff gave the water a better rating than it should have received under Department of Health guidelines.

New Brunswick water quality ratings are established by health officials, but test results are sent to staff in the Department of Tourism, who assign the water rating on any given day.

According to Parlee Beach data analyzed by CBC News, there were 17 days last summer when staff gave the water quality a fair or good rating even though tests found fecal bacteria levels high enough to merit a poor rating.

The tourism department, when asked about the questionable ratings, redirected the CBC's request for comment to the office of Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health.

In fact, all of the CBC requests to the tourism department on the issue have gone unfulfilled since last summer, when Parlee Beach experienced several days of poor water quality. 

Radio silence

After becoming aware of the discrepancies between test results from Parlee Beach and water quality ratings, CBC News made its first request for information from the tourism department on Jan. 12.

The next day, Nancy Champion, a communications officer for the department, said Tourism Minister John Ames was not available for an interview, but "we are working on getting the answers to your questions.''

CBC News asked to speak to someone directly, suggesting Parlee Beach park manager Pierre Niles if the minister was not available.

''Pierre is not available, but we're still working on getting the answers to your questions,'' Champion said.

Later that day, the department issued a short written response, saying there had been no change in criteria for water quality testing.

John Ames, shown here being sworn in as the minister of tourism, heritage and culture, leads a department that assigns water quality ratings at Parlee Beach but won't talk about any discrepancies in them. (John Ames/Twitter)

CBC News asked again for an interview because there were still many unanswered questions about what tests showed in the water at Parlee Beach and what visitors were told.

Champion asked about the nature of the follow-up questions to determine who would be the most appropriate person to answer.

Then, on Jan. 16, Valerie Kilfoil, the director of communications for the department, told CBC that tourism didn't understand why an interview was needed, since a reporter was already going to be talking with Russell, the public health officer.

After a reporter explained that tourism staff were responsible for the actual assignment of the water quality ratings, there was no word from the department the rest of the day.

But on Jan. 17, Kilfoil responded: ''Dr. Russell can speak to your questions. It is my understanding that you have an interview with her this morning.''

Questioned about the discrepancies in ratings, Russell said she could not comment on the data because it came from an outside source, referring here to the tourism department.

Internal exchanges released under RTI

Problems getting information from the tourism department go back to the summer.

After the tourism department first refused to answer questions about poor water quality at its park back in the summer, CBC News made a right-to-information request for internal correspondence on water quality.

The correspondence shows that after he received a request for an interview on Aug. 2, Niles, Parlee Beach's park manager, wrote to Martin MacMullin, manager of parks and attractions for the Tourism Department.

''This will create some chatter for sure," Niles wrote.

"Will call you shortly to discuss approach.''

Swimmers at Parlee Beach last summer did not always get an accurate picture of water quality. Some days when the water tested poor, park staff said it was fair or good. (CBC)

In an email from Aug. 3, MacMullin wrote to Jason Hoyt, the director of communications for the department at the time, asking him to touch base with Niles to coach him on responding.

A little later in the day, MacMullin said he spoke with Niles, who indicated he would rather not go on camera.

"In reality it would be preferred if we could defer to public health and Diane Fury but we have had little success in doing that in the past," he added.

CBC News tried several times to talk to Niles and he has not responded to calls or emails.

Lack of accountability a concern

Brenda Ryan owns a cottage near Parlee Beach and she said she believes the tourism department is making decisions unilaterally about how to classify the water quality. (CBC)
While the Department of Tourism won't speak about the issue, the Department of Health believes nothing unethical was done with the ratings.

''With the information that I've looked at I'm very confident that there was no wrongdoing," said Russell.

"I'm very confident that the work that had to be done based on our criteria and our guidelines have been followed."

In most provinces, assigning water ratings at public beaches is something that's done by the health department.

Scott Mawdsley, a medical doctor with a cottage at Parlee Beach, reviewed data for the 2016 beach season, and said he became concerned when he saw multiple days when the water should have rated poor if New Brunswick guidelines were followed, but instead was rated fair or, in some cases, even good.

''It certainly doesn't look good,'' said Mawdsley. 

Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health, says there was no directive from her office to alter how water ratings were being assigned. (CBC)

''And I think it reinforces the opinion of the public that tourism should have nothing to do with public health.''

Brenda Ryan, another concerned cottager, said she believes the tourism department is making decisions unilaterally.

'And those decisions actually make the beach look better from a tourism point of view but not from a public health point of view," she said.

''I'm just not sure if they're trying to not disclose information, or they really just don't know what's going on.'' 

About the Author

Gabrielle Fahmy is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been a journalist with the CBC since 2014.

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