Senate report accuses Missouri agency of risking public health

Friday, February 26, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri senators proposed Thursday to strip the state's environmental agency of its power to conduct water-quality tests and accused it of risking public health by covering up high bacteria levels at the Lake of the Ozarks.

A Senate committee report obtained Thursday by The Associated Press asserts that people got sick last year after swimming in bacteria-laden water at the central Missouri lake that attracts tourists from throughout the Midwest.

Water-quality tests by the Department of Natural Resources showed high levels of E. coli, which can cause flu-like illnesses and even death in people infected through open cuts or swallowing. But the department didn't publicize the findings for several weeks.

The report by the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee calls DNR a "department in chaos" that "violated the public trust" and "put the public health and safety of Missouri's citizens and visitors at risk."

Committee chairman Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, filed legislation Thursday that would transfer the department's water-testing duties to the state health department and require the results to be publicly released within 48 hours. Committee member Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, filed legislation that would require counties around the Lake of the Ozarks to adopt plumbing codes for homes and businesses.

Both measures are listed as recommendations in the Senate committee report, which also calls for "substantive personnel changes" at the Department of Natural Resources and improved compliance with the state's open-records law.

Six of the committee's 10 senators signed onto the report Thursday. But after the AP published a story about it, Lager's staff said he agreed to delay its public release until next week because some Democrats wanted more time to review it and suggest changes.

Committee member Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, said he had recommended the adoption of plumbing codes. But the report's premature release makes it "a political ploy more than public policy," he said.

Spokesmen for the Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Jay Nixon's office declined to comment until the report is publicly released.

The legislation would move Missouri's water-quality testing to a relatively new lab run by the Department of Health and Senior Services. Some of the same employees would be involved with the tests, but under new management and at a cost savings to the state, Schaefer said.

"It's essentially saying, 'Listen, DNR, you have proven to us you can't be trusted, you have violated public safety and health,"' Lager said. "Clearly we've got problems at DNR, we still lack leadership and the appropriate changes haven't been made over there."

The state health lab is geared to run tests for blood, saliva and other biological samples. Changes would be needed to have it also handle water-quality tests, said department spokesman Brian Quinn.

Officials from Camden, Miller and Morgan counties -- which surround the lake -- confirmed Thursday that they don't have countywide plumbing codes. The Senate legislation would require them to adopt plumbing codes within three years. That mandate also would apply to any other counties with waterways that run through state or national parks.

Lake-area tourism officials have insisted the water is generally safe, noting that bacteria levels sometimes rise after heavy rains cause soil runoff but soon fall again.

"The perception is there is an ongoing problem at the lake. It is a perception that we believe is not correct," Jim Moody, a lobbyist for the Tri County Lodging Association, told a House committee considering a separate water-quality bill Thursday.

The House bill would keep water testing at the Department of Natural Resources but require results to be posted within four days on the Internet and at the affected beaches.

The DNR probe began after the agency waited until June 26 to report the result of a May 26 water sample that showed high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks. Those tests were part of a multiyear environmental study of the lake. Although Nixon's office initially denied otherwise, it was later revealed that at least two staff members knew of the results during the delay.

It also was later disclosed that DNR had not properly closed a state park beach at the Lake of the Ozarks in May despite results from a separate testing program that showed high bacteria. The failure to close the beach prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to suspend DNR Director Mark Templeton for more than two weeks without pay and begin a broader internal investigation of water-quality testing.

That internal review found 10 cases over the past three years in which public beaches at state parks weren't closed despite high E. coli levels. In 14 other cases since 2005, the environmental agency didn't disclose that high fecal coliform bacteria levels existed in the Lake of the Ozarks.

The Senate committee report accuses DNR officials of "trying to disrupt and derail" the investigation. For example, it said the agency's legal counsel requested a private vendor compiling 500,000 documents in a digital format do so in a way that would make them unsearchable by the committee.

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