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UPDATE: Nixon denies knowing about Ozarks' E. coli results

Monday, September 28, 2009 | 6:40 p.m. CDT; updated 9:42 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 1, 2009

KANSAS CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon blamed a breakdown of communication within his administration for the delay this summer in telling the public about high levels of harmful bacteria at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Nixon, in Kansas City for an economic development announcement, told reporters Monday that while some members of his staff may have heard about the results, that information was not passed to him or other high-ranking members of his office until almost a month later, at which point his office ordered the results be released immediately.

The tests were "apparently communicated to the communication shop, not to the policy shop," Nixon said. "Once it came for a decision on the policy side, we said get the information out."

He added, "We've all said they could have been more precise with what those communications were."

Former Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Susanne Medley told Senate investigators last week that she informed Nixon aide Jeff Mazur about the E. coli results on May 29 — the day after the state agency got test results that showed E. coli levels were 19 times higher than the state standard at two places on the popular mid-Missouri tourist lake.

The results of the May test weren't released to the public until June 26, when lower E. coli levels from later tests also were reported.

Nixon's staff has said the governor's office was not aware of the results until June 23.

Asked whether Mazur shared the information with anyone else in his office, Nixon said he was "not exactly sure." But he denied any attempt by his office to delay releasing the results ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, when the lake attracts large numbers of visitors.

He also suggested that the public was already aware of poor water quality at the lake after the DNR closed a number of beaches for having E. coli levels above state standards.

"There had already been a significant number of (press) releases, already a significant number of beaches closed, already a significant amount of public information already out there," Nixon said.

However, the department's Parks Division spokeswoman Sue Holst said the division didn't close any of the state-operated beaches in May and didn't close its first beach until June 5. That beach was reopened on June 12 and closed again for a week beginning on June 18. A second beach was closed on June 12 and reopened July 2.

There are two water quality testing programs at the lake. The parks division conducts water quality tests each Monday at the beaches from around Memorial Day until around Labor Day. The test results typically come back on Thursday and then a decision is made whether to close the beach.

A second set of tests, measuring water quality over a larger area of the lake, is conducted by volunteers under an agreement with AmerenUE, the utility that operates the lake. Those results are the ones that were delayed.

The Senate environment committee is examining the department's handling of the E. coli test results to determine why they were not released sooner and whether changes are needed in state law.

The director of the department division responsible for water quality testing confirmed on Monday reports from other longtime agency employees that the release of the E. coli results was delayed while newly hired managers tried to better understand the sampling program.

According to an interview transcript released Monday to The Associated Press, DNR Deputy Director Alice Geller told Senate investigators that top agency officials met to develop an "action plan" for the lake and to determine how to "portray" the E. coli data to the public.

Geller said at least one employee within her division involved in the testing asked why the May results had not been reported. When asked by investigators why she thought it took so long, Geller said it seemed to be a new administration trying to understand the agency's activities.

"I've been through three different changes of administration in the director's office. There's always a learning curve and folks want to understand what things mean and what the implications are going to be and that's, that's part of our jobs," Geller told investigators.


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