JEFFERSON CITY — A former Missouri environmental official said Tuesday that he delayed publicizing test results showing high bacteria levels in the Lake of the Ozarks so that the agency could develop an improvement plan.
The former deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources, Joe Bindbeutel, testified before a Senate environment committee investigating the delay that he thought it would have been irresponsible to publicize last May's bacteria test results without explaining what they meant and being able to present a plan for cleaning the Lake of the Ozarks.
"Let me be very clear: I made the decision," said Bindbeutel, who left the agency before the plan could be implemented to take a gubernatorial appointment. Gov. Jay Nixon pulled that appointment in October because of controversy over the delayed test results.
Water samples were taken May 26, and Department of Natural Resources officials had final test results on May 29 that showed high levels of E. coli in numerous locations. The data wasn't publicly released until June 26 when lower E. coli levels from later testing also were reported. The tests were part of a five-year environmental study funded by St. Louis-based utility Ameren Corp., which owns the dam creating the Lake of the Ozarks.
Initially, the governor's office had said that it didn't learn about the E. coli tests until several days before they were publicly revealed. But a gubernatorial aide later acknowledged he was told about the high E. coli from a former DNR official sooner. And a Nixon spokesman has said he knew about that conversation.
The delayed reporting triggered the Senate investigation. Tuesday's hearing gave senators their first opportunity to question how DNR officials handled water tests, but it unearthed little new information over nearly five hours of testimony.
Bindbeutel, who handled environmental regulation in the attorney general's office under Nixon, said he does not believe waiting to publicize the test results risked public health because E. coli dies quickly in lake water. He said those test results aren't used to "raise red flags" about swimming.
But senators — including one who worked for DNR before joining the legislature — questioned why the agency couldn't have reported the high bacteria levels while it developed a plan.
"Releasing the data and having a plan are not mutually exclusive," said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. "It's somewhat arrogant for government to say 'you can't handle the data.'"
E. coli can cause influenza-like illnesses and even death in people infected through open cuts or when it is swallowed. State officials have said they are unaware of anyone sickened after swimming in the lake.
There were several sharp exchanges Tuesday between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Before DNR witnesses were called, St. Louis Democratic Sens. Tim Green and Joan Bray questioned the direction of the investigation, the techniques of how staff members had sought information and the cost.
Sen. Brad Lager, the committee's chairman, reiterated complaints that the environmental agency had tried to make the review difficult by delaying interviews with agency staff and providing e-mails that were disorganized and not searchable.
Lager, R-Savannah, said the committee eventually would issue a report and suggested changes.
"The Department of Natural Resources violated the public trust, and unfortunately at the same time, put the health and safety of the public at risk," Lager said.
DNR Director Mark Templeton was suspended for two weeks in the fall by Nixon after it was revealed that state beaches also were not closed despite other high bacteria tests. He testified Tuesday that there have been problems over the last five years with the environmental agency not releasing test results.
Templeton urged senators to support a plan unveiled by Nixon to give regulators new authority over water quality.
"Today is the day to start moving forward," Templeton said.