Missouri Agency Embroiled in 'E. Coli-gate'
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) knew that a top tourist destination was awash in sewage and fecal matter over Memorial Day weekend but didn't tell the public, and its subsequent refusal to release the report is leading to charges of a cover-up.
Lake of the Ozarks, a 55,000-acre reservoir in west-central Missouri with 1,150 miles of shoreline, bills itself as the Midwest's premier lake resort destination. Memorial Day weekend always sees some of the year's biggest crowds.
This May, unusually heavy rains washed dangerous amounts of E. Coli—a reliable indicator of fecal contamination—into the lake just before Memorial Day. DNR, which oversees the Division of Environmental Quality, knew the lake was testing well above safe levels, but chose to keep mum. E. Coli can cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, kidney failure, and neonatal meningitis, among other afflictions. Some strains can be fatal if swallowed.
"DNR knew that Lake of the Ozarks was teeming with sewage and E. Coli bacteria over Memorial Day weekend and they sat on the information," says Missourian and Sierra Club Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye, above. "They then refused to share the report for four weeks in spite of citizens asking to see it."
DNR officials say they withheld the information because they were concerned about the effect it would have on tourism. "Business and tourism was a consideration," a DNR spokesperson told Karen Dillon, environmental reporter for the Kansas City Star, who broke the story on July 15. "We didn't want to panic people."
Ken Midkiff, above, a longtime Missouri clean water activist and author, told Dillon the DNR's action-or lack thereof-ammounts to polluter protection, not pollution prevention. "All the reasons they gave for not releasing the report have to do with the economy," he said. "The DNR is supposed to protect water quality and the environment."
It was Midkiff who filed a complaint with the Attorney General's office alleging the DNR had violated the state's Sunshine Act. This in turn set of a flurry of media coverage, including an excoriation of DNR's "dangerous" decision by newspaper editorial boards throughout the state.
The Star's Dillon says she regularly turns to Midkiff for advice on water issues. "He's a wonderful resource, a highly regarded expert on water quality, and an advocate for clean water in Missouri," she says.
"The DNR does a lousy job of enforcing state law and its own regulations," he says. The agency in fact refused for nearly a month to show the report even to the Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance, who did the sampling for them. When the group finally saw the data, they were shocked at the high readings. A deputy DNR director has taken responsibility for the situation, and for failing to brief the governor on the E. Coli report.
Dye, pictured above doing water-quality testing, has written to DNR Director Mark Templeton calling for the deputy director's dismissal. "DNR stands for Do Not Release," he said in the Kansas City Star. Midkiff told Dillon that it appears Templeton had been "misled and deceived by his staff."
On July 29, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told reporters that "the bottom line is the information should have been released." On July 23, a Missouri Senate committee began hearings investigating DNR's handling of the E. Coli report.
"There have been anecdotal reports from doctors in Kansas city and St. Louis of people who vacationed at Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day getting sick," Midkiff says. "The primary problem is that no one knew the water was bad, so even when people got sick and went to their doctor, the doctors didn't suspect E. coli as the cause."
The safe level for "whole body contact" (such as swimming) for E. Coli is 126 colony-forming units per 100 milliliter of water, expressed as 126CFU/100ml. Leading up to Memorial Day, Lake of the Ozarks water tested as high as 2014CFU/100ml—nearly 16 times the "safe" level. But 2014CFU is as high as the DNR lab can go, so the actual level may have been much higher.