Natural resources chief: No risk from delayed E. coli report

Tuesday, October 6, 2009 | 6:48 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The suspended chief of Missouri's environmental agency said there was no immediate public health risk when E. coli test results from the Lake of the Ozarks weren't released for nearly a month.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources took water samples from the popular mid-Missouri tourist lake on May 26. Those tests showed high E. coli levels in numerous parts of the lake, but the state agency didn't release those results until late June.

DNR Director Mark Templeton told investigators for a Senate environmentcommittee reviewing the delay that he doesn't believe public health was endangered. That's because he said the bacteria die in lake water within about four days, and he wasn't aware of the high test results until June 3 — eight days after the tests.

"This was not designed as a real time public health monitoring study. This was designed as a long-term scientific study," Templeton said.

Senate investigators interviewed Templeton on Sept. 30 — shortly after Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the director had been suspended for two weeks without pay. The transcript was released Tuesday.

Templeton said agency officials wanted to better understand how high rainfalls immediately before the testing affected the results. They also wanted to develop a plan for improving water quality. He said that the results were not delayed because of tourism concerns.

Nixon's administration has been under fire since July, when media reports revealed DNR had delayed releasing the E. coli test results. The governor's office initially said it did not learn of the May 26 test results until June 23, when it said it directed the results to be released.

But a gubernatorial aide last week acknowledged he was told about the high E. coli from a former DNR official on May 29. A Nixon spokesman has said he knew about that conversation, despite telling reporters throughout the summer that no one in the governor's office was aware of the bacteria tests until June 23.

Templeton told Senate investigators that the first time he told someone in the governor's office about the E. coli tests was during a June 23 meeting with Nixon chief of staff John Watson.

"The topic came up and John's response was immediate and crystal clear. Which was, you all need to get this information out," Templeton said.

Those E. coli tests are part of a five-year study funded by Ameren Corp. to evaluate water quality at the Lake of the Ozarks. Nixon triggered more controversy over bacteria when he disclosed last week that a public beach was not closed despite high E. coli levels from a different set of water testing.

An internal investigation into the bacteria monitoring at two beaches has led to unpaid suspensions for two unidentified department employees.

Asked by Senate investigators about how the department handled beach closings, Templeton said he was not told when beaches were closed. But Templeton called it "unconscionable" that a beach at the Lake of the Ozarks was not closed after a May test found high bacteria levels.

Jim Yancey, the head of the environment section for state parks, said in a mid-June e-mail to the state parks director that the beach was not recommended to be closed after a May 18 test because water samples were taken on a Monday shortly after a significant rainfall. Deciding whether to close the beach came nearly a week later, and by that time, the risk to swimmers was judged to be low, Yancey said.

A water sample taken the next week showed E. coli was within state guidelines for swimming, but the average bacteria level from the samples was still too high. The beach was not closed until June 5.

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