Former Mo. environmental agency official regrets E. coli report delay

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The former deputy chief of Missouri's environmental agency says he regrets the delayed release of an E. coli report from the Lake of the Ozarks because the controversy has created suspicion toward the agency, but he maintains the wait did not risk public health.

The Department of Natural Resources took water samples from the lake May 26 but did not release results showing high bacteria levels in numerous places until about a month later. The delay has prompted an investigation by a Senate environment committee and continuing criticism.

Former DNR deputy director Joe Bindbeutel told Senate investigators he first learned May 29 that bacterial levels were high but didn't see specific results until later. According to an interview transcript released Tuesday, Bindbeutel said he decided the agency needed to better understand why the levels were high and develop a plan for what to do about it.

Bindbeutel said there was no public health risk because E. coli survive in lake water for a few days and that time had passed when he saw the results. DNR director Mark Templeton gave a similar explanation.

"I made the determination that it was more important to identify the cause, address the cause and fix it than to report in what I thought was a premature fashion," Bindbeutel said.

Asked how he would handle the situation differently, Bindbeutel said he regrets not immediately releasing bacteria results.

"I think this has been a tremendous distraction to the cause of protecting our resources and has brought incredible scrutiny and suspicion on the department," Bindbeutel said. "I would have released it right away and sort of taken the hit" over details unknown to the department such as what caused the high E. coli levels.

The water sampling is part of a five-year study to evaluate Lake of the Ozarks water quality that is funded by Ameren Corp. That testing program is separate from the one used for state beaches.

Bindbeutel, who previously handled environmental issues under Nixon in the attorney general's office, left the Department of Natural Resources in July when he was appointed to the state Administrative Hearing Commission. He must be confirmed by the Senate when it reconvenes in January.

Several DNR employees have told Senate investigators that they urged the agency's top officials to release the E. coli data quickly. Bindbeutel said he saw that as "PR advice" out of fear the department would look bad for not releasing the figures rather than concern that public health was endangered.

Criticism over water quality testing at the popular tourist lake has dogged Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's administration since mid-July media reports about the delayed E. coli report.

A Nixon spokesman initially said the governor's office first learned of delayed results June 23 and that Nixon chief of staff John Watson instructed the agency to release the data.

But the environmental agency's former communications director told Senate investigators that she notified a gubernatorial aide May 29. Also, DNR e-mail records indicate Bindbeutel sought a copy of the E. coli test results for a meeting June 4 in the governor's office.

Bindbeutel told Senate investigators that the meeting was about an earlier appointment to the Public Service Commission and involved utility trade group representatives and a Nixon aide. Bindbeutel said he hung around the governor's office for an hour or two after the meeting but did not discuss bacteria tests. Bindbeutel said he wanted the E. coli test results for a meeting with Watson later that week, but the meeting was canceled.

The governor's office has said Bindbeutel immediately left after the June 4 meeting and did not discuss E. coli.

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