JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators proposed Thursday to strip the state's environmental agency of its power to conduct water-quality tests and accused it of risking public health by covering up high bacteria levels at the Lake of the Ozarks.
A Senate committee report obtained Thursday by The Associated Press asserts that people got sick last year after swimming in bacteria-laden water at the central Missouri lake that attracts tourists from throughout the Midwest.
Water-quality tests by the Department of Natural Resources showed high levels of E. coli, which can cause influenza-like illnesses and even death in people infected through open cuts or swallowing. But the department didn't publicize the findings for several weeks.
The report by the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee said the department is "in chaos," "violated the public trust" and "put the public health and safety of Missouri's citizens and visitors at risk."
Republican Sens. Brad Lager and Kurt Schaefer — both of whom are members of the committee — filed bills Thursday that would transfer the department's water-testing duties to the state health department and require counties around the lake to adopt plumbing codes for homes and businesses.
Both measures were recommended by the Senate committee, which also called for "substantive personnel changes" at the Department of Natural Resources and improved compliance with the state's open-records law.
Department spokesman Judd Slivka said he had not seen a copy of the report and had no immediate comment.
Lager, of Savannah, said his legislation would move Missouri's water-quality testing to a relatively new lab run by the Department of Health and Senior Services. Schaefer, of Columbia, said many of the same employees would be involved with the tests, but under new management and at a cost savings to the state.
"It's essentially saying, 'Listen, DNR, you have proven to us you can't be trusted, you have violated public safety and health,'" Lager said. "Clearly we've got problems at DNR, we still lack leadership and the appropriate changes haven't been made over there."
The probe into the Department of Natural Resources began after it waited until June 26 to report the result of a May 26 water sample that showed high E. coli levels at the lake. Those tests were part of a multiyear environmental study of the lake.
Amid the controversy over the reporting of those test results, it later was revealed that the department had not properly closed a state park beach at the lake in May despite results from a separate testing program that showed high bacteria. The failure to close the beach prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to suspend department Director Mark Templeton for more than two weeks without pay and begin a broader internal investigation of water-quality testing.
That internal review found 10 cases over the past three years in which public beaches at state parks were not closed despite high E. coli levels. In 14 other cases since 2005, the environmental agency did not disclose that high fecal coliform bacteria levels existed in the lake.