The muck stops here: Bureaucracy may be at the root of septic tank problem

Thursday, November 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:42 a.m. CST, Friday, November 6, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — A tangled web of bureaucracy keeps discharge from septic tanks flowing into the Lake of the Ozarks.

A number of government agencies have a stake in what happens at the lake. Both the state Natural Resources and Health departments, as well as various county governments, have overlapping jurisdiction in water quality, environmental and health matters.

This wide distribution of responsibilities can create confusion, and some government employees say they lack a full understanding of how to handle problems posed by failing on-site, or residential, septic systems.

In theory, the organizational structure seems to be well-defined.

According to government employees and official state publications, the Natural Resources Department is responsible, among other things, for water quality in lakes and rivers. The department also has authority over wastewater management systems at commercial and industrial sites. 

The Health Department is responsible for on-site, or residential, septic systems and for health threats that affect the public.

In practice, the division is not so clearly defined.

Who is responsible, for example, when wastewater from septic tanks regulated by the Health Department drains into Missouri waters monitored by the Natural Resources Department?

That question has emerged since summer's high E.coli levels threatened public health at the Lake of the Ozarks.

One document, a "memorandum of understanding" between the two departments  attempts to resolve such questions.

According to the 2003 agreement, both departments notify each other and act cooperatively when information unfolds about "contamination which may affect the public health or the environment."

In June, however,  the Natural Resources Department acted alone to close beaches at the Lake of the Ozarks, nearly one month after learning about the elevated E.coli levels.

Later, Natural Resources Department Director Mark Templeton told state Senate investigators that he did not know about the memorandum of understanding at the time and did not consider contacting the Health Department.

"This was not presented to me as a public health issue," Templeton said. "It did not come up in the discussions about sharing it. The discussions I was involved in, I  do not recall it coming up about sharing ... information with the Department of Health."

Still, he does not deny that the lake's poor water quality could have come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health.

"I think that if you have information about high E. coli in a certain period of time when you can act on it, yes, it is a public health issue," Templeton said to the Senate investigators.

Templeton refused repeated requests for further comment. A spokesman said the Natural Resources Department would be looking into future cooperation with the Health Department.

Former DNR spokeswoman Susanne Medley told the investigators she received criticism from members of her department when she contacted the Health Department about the high E.coli test results.

"When I sent the press release out, I contacted Kit Wagar, who is the director of communications for the Department of Health, to give him a heads up because I thought it might generate some calls to the Department of Health, and I didn't want him to be surprised," Medley told the Senate staffers.

"And I thought it was really odd when I sent out a message to everyone who had been involved ... but (Water Quality Monitoring Section Chief) Tim Reilly sent me an e-mail back saying, 'Thanks for getting Health involved, Suzanne.'"

Only after DNR delayed the release of water quality test results did she learn of the agreement between the two departments, Medley said. When she wanted to read it, she said, she discovered her department did not possess a copy of the document.

Murky waters

Conversely, the Health Department might not alert the Natural Resources Department if a public health issue occurred at the lake.

Russell Lilly, an environmental specialist for the Health Department, said "there would not necessarily be any notification" of DNR if the Health Department were to find a malfunctioning septic tank.

Similarly, Jim Gaughan, the on-site wastewater programming coordinator for the Health Department, said he would not contact DNR if he learned sewage was draining into the lake.

"Currently, there isn't a policy in place or a procedure to do that reporting," Gaughan said in an interview. "If either agency decided there was a benefit or a need for both agencies to be involved, that could be done, but it currently isn't done."

Health Department Director Margaret Donnelly did not respond to requests for comment.

The Health Department also monitors on-site wastewater management in some counties but not others, which adds to the confusion.

Of the four counties around the lake, only Miller County has its on-site septic systems monitored directly by the Health Department.

In other counties, the task of overseeing septic tanks has been outsourced entirely to local government officials.

The environmental public health specialist for Benton County, Tracy Rank, can only investigate a septic system if a complaint is filed with the county. She said she has encountered many failing septic tanks but estimates that the number of leaking systems is far greater than those she has seen in an official capacity. 

"If somebody has a failing system, we can't actually 'head hunt,'" Rank said. "We can't go out and just look for them. The state just doesn't really allow us to do that."

Jim Miller, the Morgan County environmental public health specialist, has had similar experiences. He said malfunctioning septic systems are often discovered purely by chance.

"Unless somebody just happens to see it and see that it's leaking and causing a problem, it's not something we would see unless we happen to be out in the county and see something while we're looking at something else," Miller said.

He added that leaking septic tanks have never been presented to him as an environmental issue that might concern the DNR.

"If DNR wants to be notified, I'd be happy to notify them, but it's not something that they'd be involved in on the residential side that we have control over."

Thousands of complaints

While communication among government agencies may be limited,  DNR does learn about problems through reports by residents.

A public-records Sunshine Law request turned up more than 4,000 complaints to DNR during the past five years regarding failing septic tanks in the four counties surrounding the lake. This is nearly 20 percent of all septic systems complaints received by the department for the state in the same time period. 

Because the department is not responsible for on-site septic systems, however, it is unclear how many, if any, of these complaints have been addressed. It is also unclear if complaints received first at the county level are included in these numbers.

Gov. Jay Nixon said recently precedent is the reason DNR continues to address problems that normally would be handled by the Health Department.

"DNR has the park there (at the Lake of the Ozarks), they have in the past done this testing, they were a part of the original Watershed Alliance testing, and ultimately one of the charges of the Department of Natural Resources is the protection of our natural resources," Nixon said. "If DNR does its job effectively and efficiently, the Department of Health isn't really needed. If you keep the water clean, it's really boring over at Health."

If — as the governor suggested — it has been boring at the Health Department, it has been anything but at DNR. The summertime controversy about the lake's E.coli levels has impacted state personnel decisions.

Earlier this month, the appointment of former DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel to another agency was withdrawn after Bindbeutel's state senator refused to support his nomination.

More recently, Jim Yancey, the head of the environmental section for state parks at DNR, was fired because beaches with high levels of E. coli had not being closed.

While Templeton stopped short of identifying problems in communication between government departments in his testimony to Senate staffers, he said the memorandum of understanding should be reviewed and revised to meet the current needs of the departments.

"Margaret Donnelly and I have spoken about the need to update that document and make sure that everyone in our department understands the protocols and procedures related to that," Templeton said in statements to Senate investigators.


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Hydroponics Smith November 5, 2009 | 10:52 a.m.

A important matter to settle. I just hope the health safety of the public will be always the priority.

(Report Comment)
Max Plank November 5, 2009 | 5:01 p.m.

Never mind the fact that since AmerenUE maintains the damn... people can live right on the lake's shore. This isn't allowed on other Missouri lakes managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Bureaucracy may have been a problem here but it's not a problem on other lakes with more stringent regulation.

(Report Comment)
Artur Sabel November 18, 2009 | 2:06 p.m.

Lloyd Kahn the author of the single best book about septic systems made this comment:

“I’ve been amazed by the scale, by the lack of accountability, by the hoodwinking of the public and by so many homeowners placidly accepting their fates. If you own a home with a septic system and haven’t been pushed to upgrade to an expensive new system yet, I bet you will be in the next five years. The amount of money to be made is just too great for this new industry to slow down on its own accord.”

(Report Comment)

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