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Senate Democrats criticize Republican E. coli report

Monday, March 1, 2010 | 9:41 p.m. CST; updated 10:06 p.m. CST, Monday, March 1, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A group of Senate Democrats accused Republican colleagues Monday of carrying out a "political witch hunt," as they countered a committee report on E. coli testing with a harshly worded report of their own.

The committee report under fire directed pointed criticism at the Department of Natural Resources and its handling of high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks this summer. Notably, it suggested state water testing should fall under the purview of the Health Department instead of that of the Natural Resources Department.

Democrats from the committee took issue with the Republicans' report and said they were upset to have not been included in its drafting.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, questioned the accuracy of some facts in the Republicans' report and said the issue at hand had become overly politicized.

"The (committee's) probe quickly turned into a political witch hunt," Green said, "rife with intimidation, threats of subpoenas, blanket demands for all communications of all DNR employees and strategic press leaks of selective facts intended to inflict political harm on the current administration."

Three senators compiled the Democrats' report in response to a draft Republican report issued Thursday, which recommended that water testing responsibilities be shifted to the Health Department.

The Republicans' report also stated that people became ill from swimming in the Lake of the Ozarks and that the Department of Natural Resources engaged in a concerted effort to restrict information related to high E. coli levels.

Green called these and other parts of the Republicans' report "major failings."

"The majority report plainly asserts that E. coli in the Lake of the Ozarks did make people sick, despite no evidence of causal effect presented to the investigating panel or the committee at a public hearing," Green said.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, who led the committee investigation, said the information regarding illnesses came from internal Department of Natural Resources e-mails but was never confirmed by a health official.

The Democrats' report suggested revisions to some recommendations included in its Republican counterpart. Notably, it proposed stricter enforcement of wastewater regulations and a "real time" testing system for state waters. While the report did not recommend a transfer of water testing authority from the Natural Resources Department to the Health Department, it suggested the departments could benefit from improved communication.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, was critical of the Republicans' report, saying it did not focus enough on the "serious issue" of water quality at the Lake of the Ozarks.

"This report is out to get certain people, ignore the facts and grandstand for the media," Bray said.

Lager, who led the Senate investigation, defended the Republicans' report while criticizing the Natural Resources Department.

"The simple fact is that DNR violated the public trust, and at the end of the day they put the citizens of this state and the visitors to this state at risk," Lager said.

Lager said he likely wouldn't "waste my time" reading the Democrats' report but he would be open to incorporating suggestions from Democrats into the final draft of the Republican report.

Another member of the committee, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the reports were actually quite similar but committee Democrats "took exception to the process."

Schaefer is the sponsor of a bill that would enact a number of the recommendations outlined in the Republican report.

Lager said he expected the two reports would be combined into one, rather than simply submitted together. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said that changes will still be made to the committee's report and it should continue to be viewed as a draft.

"'Final draft' is like 'jumbo shrimp,'" Shields said. "It's still a draft."

The reports marked the end of a months-long investigation by the Senate Commerce Committee into the Natural Resources Department following delayed reporting of high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks this summer.


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