Missouri senators propose water-quality testing be handled by new department

Thursday, February 25, 2010 | 4:54 p.m. CST; updated 8:23 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 25, 2010

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.

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richard cranberry April 3, 2010 | 7:52 p.m.

I strongly disagree with the angle of this piece. First of all, the tests at the Lake of the Ozarks did not necessarily violate Clean Water Law in Missouri. Thanks to the endless lobbying of the lawyers and lobbyists work for the same CAFOs that support Brad Lager and Kurt Schaefer, we don't have a so-called 'single sample max,' instead the citizens of Missouri must wait for a geometric mean to come out after 5 tests during the recreational season are averaged using an equation called a Geometric Mean. A geometric mean is an obtuse way of getting an average, this process tends to knock down high test results. This means that DNR in fact reported this data long before a geometric mean would have been calculated to determine if the water was safe for recreation. I know! it's a ludicrous system, your kids won't wait to get sick until the geometric mean has been calculated. If Brad Lager and Kurt Schaefer want to help out and make the waters of Missouri safe for all of our families then they should push for a law requiring all bacterial testing results to be publicly posted within 48 hours and help push for a single sample max for bacteria for all waters of the state. And leave it at that.

(Report Comment)
richard cranberry April 3, 2010 | 7:54 p.m.

SWITCHING THE TESTING TO THE MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SENIOR SERVICES WILL RESULT IN EVEN MORE MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS FROM CONTAMINATED WATERS ACROSS MISSOURI. The Department of Health and Senior Service has one lab in the middle of the state that is supposed to be able to perform water quality tests to be exclusively used for water quality monitoring across the state. This provision has been worded specifically to exclude tests from any other lab with regard to Clean Water Law in Missouri. When you consider that DNR does testing and also contracts with the USGS, local Publicly Owned Treatment Works, Universities, as well as an awesome volunteer monitoring program you may have heard of called the Stream Teams and then respond to the fact that only about 20% of the rivers, streams, lakes and ponds in Missouri are monitored it becomes apparent that the task of monitoring Missouri's waters is a staggering task that requires far more resources than are currently allocated for the task. By moving all testing to one lab you create many logistical issues including the cost of transporting bacterial tests halfway across the state within the 6 hour window for incubation. THIS WILL CAUSE EXPONENTIAL INCREASES IN COST AND REDUCE ACCURACY OF BACTERIAL TESTS, not to mention the unnecessary pollution from all that extra driving. Furthermore there is NO WAY ON EARTH that MDHSS has a big enough facility to provide the current number of tests, let alone increasing the testing to cover all 180,000 miles of rivers and streams in the state or the 1000's of acres of lakes that are not currently monitored. If anything the MDHSS should be put to the task of testing some of the streams that currently aren't monitored in order to increase the amount of water quality data being collected on the behalf of Missourians Against Dangerous Poisonous Waters. By relying only on the MDHSS labs people will be vastly more at risk than with the current testing system. Lets not forget that this is the same Department of Health and Senior Services that couldn't find lead in Herculaneum....

(Report Comment)
richard cranberry April 3, 2010 | 7:55 p.m.

The last thing that I would like to point out is that this article points out that E. coli can cause influenza like illness. This is absolutely true, the missing part of this equation is that E. coli is measured as the primary risk factor, it is measured as an indicator organism. Thanks to the relative ease in testing for E. coli, as well as its correlation with a broad spectrum of water born bacteria that come from the fecal matter (poop) of mammals. Many, many common diseases can be spread via human fecal contamination of a water body. Mentioning only E. coli leaves out a host of other types of bacteria that are indicated by the presence of E. coli, but not directly tested for, according to Missouri water quality law.

Come on Columbia Missourian, do your job and tell the whole story. Don't be a mouthpiece for a policy that will backfire with devastating impacts on the health of Missourians.

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