JEFFERSON CITY — Democratic senators on Monday called for real-time, water-quality testing of Missouri's lakes and rivers while denouncing Republicans for a "political witch hunt" into the state's mishandling of high bacteria levels in the Lake of the Ozarks.
The three Democratic members of a Senate environmental committee released their rebuttal Monday after a report signed by a majority of Republicans on the panel was provided to the media last week.
The Senate committee began an investigation last year after revelations that the Department of Natural Resources delayed the public release of test results showing high levels of E. coli in the Lake of the Ozarks.
The bacteria can cause influenza-like illnesses and even death in people infected through open cuts or swallowing. While the report asserted that people had become sick at the popular central Missouri tourist lake, the minority report countered that there was no firm evidence of that.
The report signed by Republicans described DNR as a "department in chaos" that "violated the public trust" and "put the public health and safety of Missouri's citizens and visitors at risk."
But the Democratic report said the committee's work, which began as a "policy review," morphed into "a thinly veiled rationale for the ongoing political witch hunt" against Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon's administration. Democrats noted that the majority report failed to mention public notification failures about bacteria-laden waters during the previous administration of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.
The top recommendation in the Republican-signed report was to transfer the department's water-testing duties to the state health department and require the results to be publicly released within 48 hours.
Democratic senators said that proposal needed further study.
"The fact that the state's current testing protocol does not provide real-time notification of dangerous bacteria levels is the single largest impediment to protecting the safety of citizens," their report said.
The Democratic report said lawmakers should consider Nixon's proposals for more stringent regulation of septic systems around the lake and should debate whether to provide more money to the department's water quality efforts.
"Everybody is in agreement that testing needs to be done, and people want to know if the waterways their families swim in or vacation in are safe," said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, whose family has a home at the Lake of the Ozarks.
The Republican and Democratic reports both recommended that counties surrounding the Lake of the Ozarks — as well as others with waterways running through state or federal parks — be required to adopt plumbing codes for residential and commercial buildings.
Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee. He said he would review the Democratic report to see whether any of its points should be incorporated into the committee's main report, but he was generally dismissive of it.
"This is smoke and mirrors trying to cover up the fact that the Department of Natural Resources violated the trust that we as the citizens have in them," Lager said.