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DNR staff problems slowed release of E. coli test results

Saturday, September 26, 2009 | 3:25 p.m. CDT; updated 8:17 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 26, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Difficulties with new leadership at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources appear to have contributed to delays in reporting E. coli test results at the Lake of the Ozarks.

The internal staff problems were described by current and former DNR employees during interviews earlier this month with Senate investigators examining how the delayed E. coli tests were handled. Transcripts of those interviews were released Friday.

Those transcripts show a disconnect between newly selected agency leaders — who did not know about the E. coli testing program — and DNR employees involved with the testing, who said department leaders seemed to take a long time releasing the results.

Water samples taken May 26 from the lake showed high E. coli levels in several places. Agency officials received final results on May 29, but the report wasn't released until June 26, when lower E. coli levels from later testing also were reported.

The Lake of the Ozarks is created by a dam owned by St. Louis-based utility Ameren Corp. The company agreed to provide $15,000 a year to monitor for E. coli.

At most state agencies, the top officials are selected by the governor, and the lower-level workers involved in day-to-day operations are merit employees protected from partisan changes. When Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon took office in January, he replaced many officials at the Department of Natural Resources.

According to DNR employees interviewed by Senate investigators, the new department leaders handled the E. coli test results differently, including a directive not to discuss the findings with anyone outside the agency.

Alan Reinkemeyer, the director of the agency's Environmental Services Program, said there is a "learning curve" with new administrations and that he believed initially there were changes because the department's new leaders were trying to understand the water testing program.

Scott Robinett, an environmental specialist who has been involved with the testing since 2007, told investigators that he received numerous requests for additional information from the department's leaders.

"It seemed to just drag on week after week. No news release. The following week started getting numerous management requests in different formats, other data to compare to, background information and that went on at least two weeks, maybe three weeks," Robinett said.

On the flip side, Susanne Medley — who was the department's communications director until she resigned on Sept. 14 — said that when she was first told about the E. coli test results, she asked for more information and called a meeting. At that meeting, Medley asked for a history of the study and an analysis of how rainfall affects the test results.

Medley told investigators that there were delays in getting that information and that "my frustration level was through the roof" because of the slow pace. She said DNR needs to be realigned.

"It was like I'm trying to move this along. Hello? Hello, people. Where's the rainfall data? Where's the rainfall data? I think things just kind of moved along like that over the next several days. Just like that. Where's this? Where's that? Come on people. Come on," Medley said.

On Friday DNR Director Mark Templeton, a Nixon appointee, said he is filling key leadership positions in the agency and is looking for ways to be more efficient and serve the public better.

"I understand that members of my management team had sought this information from technical staff and that it took several days for the analysis to be provided," Templeton said in a written response to questions. "Also, members of my management team were working with technical staff to develop a substantive action plan to improve water quality at the Lake."

 


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Comments

Allan Sharrock September 27, 2009 | 8:57 a.m.

The way to make it more efficient is to have a bipartisan senate committee hire competent personal that are not political appointees. If the positions are non political then they can do their job without regard of what the Governor thinks. Everyone should look at this case not only in the aspect of DNR but the FBI,CIA, FEMA, ect ect. Our lives, property, and wealth are put at stake because of political appointees. Our ambassadors are appointed because of donations and not because of their effectiveness.

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