OSAGE BEACH — A state agency has acknowledged it withheld for one month a report that showed the Lake of the Ozarks had unsafe levels of E. coli.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said it withheld the report in May because of concern that releasing it would hurt tourism and business around the lake, The Kansas City Star reported Thursday.
But some say the DNR's decision to not immediately release the report may have endangered public health.
Donna Swall, executive director of a citizens group that sampled the lake May 26 for the DNR, said she pleaded with state officials to release the information.
"We all thought something must be wrong," Swall said.
The presence of E. coli, which is found in the intestines of animals, indicates the water may have been in contact with sewage or animal wastes. Someone with a cut or open wound can be infected by the water. If it is swallowed, a person might have flu symptoms or even die.
Heavy rains in May washed bacteria into the lake, which has since returned to safe levels. The report was not released until June 26, and it reported that lower levels had been found in June samples. But in May, the number of high samples were more than the total number over the last two years, Swall said.
DNR spokeswoman Susanne Medley said the agency delayed the release because it didn't want to the public to panic.
"We wanted to make sure we understood the problem," Medley said. "Business and tourism was a consideration."
Earl Pabst, a deputy DNR director, said this week that he didn't tell the new administration of Gov. Jay Nixon about the monitoring program, so officials panicked when they saw the samples.
"I take responsibility for this," Pabst said. "I failed to brief the new administration. They had questions, and it frankly took a little while to answer those. It took some internal education."
Ken Midkiff, a clean-water expert and author, said the report should have been released about May 28 when the danger was imminent.
"All the reasons DNR gave for not releasing the report have to do with the economy," Midkiff said. "The Department of Natural Resources is supposed to protect water quality and the environment."
The public was notified that two beaches in the Lake of the Ozarks State Park were shut down, but people were not told about many other areas in the lake that tested high.
The state standard for E. coli is 126 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. More than half of the 60 samples taken May 26 exceeded that standard, state records show. At least two samples were 19 times above the standard.
Many Missouri lakes are not monitored for E. coli. But Lake of the Ozarks has been monitored since Ameren Corp. agreed in 2007 to provide $15,000 a year for five years to monitor for E. coli as part of a state settlement over a dam failure.
The Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance, a group of volunteers with oversight by DNR employees, samples the lake six times a year during the swimming season.
Swall said that on June 12, two top DNR officials told alliance members that the new DNR administration appointed by Nixon was unaware of the monitoring program. But even after they were shown the report, it wasn't released.