Missouri's E. coli problems are not confined to the Lake of the Ozarks

Missouri's E. coli problems are not confined to the Lake of the Ozarks

A year ago this month, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was getting spanked over the revelation that the department had failed to report data on dangerous E. coli levels at Lake of the Ozarks. The motivation, media outlets reported, was tourism dollars — the DNR knew about the high E. coli readings before that Memorial Day weekend but didn't make them public until the holiday beach traffic subsided.

The resulting scandal prompted a state Senate investigation. That probe ceased in February, but fallout continued until, on the last day of the legislative session, the Senate's committee on Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources let the clock run out without passing the bill to renew the DNR's Water Protection Program. Industrial and agricultural polluters pay for permits granted by the program; permit fees provide as much as 37 percent of the DNR's regulatory operations. Because the bill didn't pass, the DNR will be unable to collect permit fees in 2011. If the DNR can't afford to operate its federally mandated clean-water program in 2011, under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will step in and take over the program.

Big-business lobbyists and Sierra Club activists agree that the Missouri DNR needs an overhaul. Right now, it can afford to monitor only a small fraction of the state's water bodies for pollutants and pathogens such as E. coli. But building a new water-quality program under a different agency could take years.

Missouri's tourism slogan used to be "Where the Rivers Run" because more miles of water flow through this state than any other. More than 155,000 miles of Missouri's rivers and streams are "unclassified" by the DNR, meaning that the agency does not test them for bacteria or specific pollutants, including mercury, iron and lead. People are floating, boating, fishing and swimming in some of those waterways right now, downstream from a municipal water-treatment facility or a large factory farm with an unchecked spillover from a lagoon of animal waste (two major sources of elevated bacteria counts).

To date, there is only anecdotal evidence of sickened beachgoers at the Lake of the Ozarks over the 2009 Memorial Day weekend. The reason, experts say, is that an outbreak of E. coli poisoning is hard to trace back to a recreational area. Tourists travel long distances to visit the Lake of the Ozarks and may not suffer symptoms until they return home. And people suffering stomach illnesses are more likely to blame the egg salad they ate at the lake rather than the lake itself.

The DNR's reason for not testing the water quality of 90 percent of Missouri's rivers and streams: money. Since the early '90s, the Legislature has consistently reduced the DNR's allocation from general revenue, and for the DNR, lack of money means lack of manpower.

"I find it extremely ironic that the Legislature is screaming at DNR for not doing their job competently and quickly enough, and then refuses to give them any resources to do their job," says Scott Dye, the national coordinator of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program.

This summer, the DNR has published its notifications of bacteria levels at public beaches online, an obvious response to last year's fiasco. Department spokesman Judd Slivka says: "We're much more transparent. This year, we put 2.4 million archival lab records online, dating back from 2002. Our lab results now go online within 48 hours of them being delivered to the programs that ordered them. Every time there's E. coli exceedance, it's put on a blog."

Transparency is nice, Dye says, but it still doesn't address the heart of the issue. "The bottom line is, a lot of this is stuff that ordinary citizens shouldn't have to know," he says. "They should be able to visit recreational areas with confidence that they're not going to get sick. This whole water-fees thing has created one hell of a mess, and it's not good for any party involved."

Bacterial problems lurk in waterways all over the state. Steve Seyer found that out the hard way when his 80-pound giant schnauzer, Dolphus, nearly died after becoming ill from playing in a creek.

In the spring of 2007, Seyer went for regular jogs in Castlewood State Park in Ballwin, a five-mile, 1,818-acre slice of green where tall limestone bluffs cradle the Meramec River below.

Seyer and his dog would end their runs at the bank of Kiefer Creek, which runs for about a mile from its spring to its confluence with the Meramec. "There's a place under a bridge inside the park with this great four-foot pool that's just phenomenal for letting kids fully submerge," Seyer says. "It's a neat place to play."

Seyer would let Dolphus cool off in the water before they climbed back into his van at the end of each run. Soon, though, the dog began suffering from an odd range of maladies. "I started to notice lumps on his back," Seyer says. "Two big ones. And black eye discharge and diarrhea that wouldn't stop. He was a sick puppy for a while. I didn't know what was causing it at the time."

The jog-and-swim ritual continued until that June, when Seyer says he got tired of the lingering wet-dog smell in his van and put a stop to Dolphus' dunks in Kiefer Creek. Dolphus' health improved after that.

Seyer had always noticed a monitoring station operated by the U.S. Geological Survey at the intersection of Castlewood and Kiefer Creek roads. Out of curiosity, he poked around on the Internet, looking for the station's data. "I found ten years' worth of flow, depth and bacterial data monitoring on Kiefer Creek," Seyer says. "I'm an IT guy, so I can look at the legend that describes what's normal for bacteria and what's not. One thing that kept popping up as incredibly abnormal were the E. coli levels."

The bacteria species E. coli grows in colonies and is found in the intestinal tracts and feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Some types are less harmful than others, but the nastiest strains can cause serious illness and even death. The DNR will close a beach in a state park if a single-sample test for E. coli results in more than 235 colonies per 100 milliliters — at a level of 235, according to the EPA, 8 people out of 1,000 who get in the water will get sick.

When Seyer crunched the USGS' numbers, he concluded that 65 percent of the E. coli levels at Kiefer Creek were far higher than any of the troublesome test results at the Lake of the Ozarks.

"In 2009 the Lake of the Ozarks had E. coli levels at 2,400 colonies per 100 milliliters," Seyer says. "Kiefer Creek regularly had levels of over 20,000 to 40,000 colonies per 100 milliliters, with a high-water mark at 590,000."

Seyer contacted Miya Barr, a hydrologist with the USGS Missouri Water Science Center in Rolla, who confirmed that Seyer's interpretation of the numbers was correct and that they presented evidence of a significant sewage problem in Kiefer Creek.

"That's why my dog was getting septic," Seyer says, referring to the illness more commonly referred to as septic shock. "He was swimming in sludge and sewage. You'd never make that connection in a stream as clear as this. When you walk into that park, you expect snakes, deer, coyotes, wild animals. You don't expect to come out of there septic."

In Missouri, poop is political.

Sen. Brad Lager, a Republican from Maryville, led a state Senate investigation into the DNR's Lake of the Ozarks debacle through the Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee.

The resulting report was published in February, but the committee's three Democrats, Sens. Joan Bray, Jolie Justus and Tim Green, refused to sign it. In their separate report, they criticized their Republican counterparts, writing that the investigation "quickly degenerated into an overtly political endeavor...[that] morphed into a thinly veiled rationale for the ongoing political witch hunt, 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 administration."

The bacteria test results behind the furor were never intended to assess public safety, the minority report notes. Unlike the DNR's weekly tests for bacteria levels at Lake of the Ozarks beaches, these tests were performed by volunteers of the Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance as part of a five-year, $15,000 study funded by the Ameren Corporation, a utility company with an electricity generator at the lake. That study was in its third year in May 2009, and the data collected was to be used to determine the condition of the lake ecosystem.

The minority report points out that Lager took notice of the issue only after the DNR was under the helm of Gov. Jay Nixon's appointees. During the previous administration of Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, the DNR failed on twelve occasions between April 19, 2005, and May 26, 2009, to close public beaches after recording elevated E. coli counts at the lake. Lager had never criticized the lag time in reporting findings from the five-year Ameren study, either, though there were at least three occasions in 2007 and 2008 when those results were similarly delayed.

Lager's report makes no mention of Joe Bindbeutel, the DNR's deputy director at the time of the elevated readings at the lake, though Bindbeutel testified before the Senate committee. In his testimony, Bindbeutel explained that he had waited to release the bacterial counts to the public until after the DNR determined the source of the pollution (heavy rain, faulty septic systems, migrating geese or a combination of factors). Rather than "dumping" the potentially confusing data on the public, he said, he wanted to be able to explain the information in context.

"Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Mr. Bindbeutel's logic.... It is evident that his decision was not part of a conspiracy to protect financial interests at the Lake of the Ozarks," the minority report reads. "To allege otherwise is irresponsible."

The Democratic committee members say Lager sent copies of his Lake of the Ozarks investigation report to the media before the senators themselves were able to review its contents. "The media reported his version of the so-called investigation, as no opportunity was given to Democratic members of the committee to make corrections or alterations prior to dissemination to the media," the minority report reads. "Further, the Department of Natural Resources, the subject of much derision in the report, did not even possess a copy of the report when media outlets began asking for reactions."

Bray says, "I always felt that way too much was made of the E. coli thing. I never heard the critics of the situation acknowledge that they do not have the political will to fund what would be necessary to give the public the best information. It's a total failure upon the part of people who think that government can do everything on the cheap. And it can't."

Lager stands by his committee's conclusions. "Our state government is better now because of the review," he says. "DNR is definitely more accountable because they understand that we're watching. That's exactly what's supposed to happen."

Lager's district encompasses several large-scale hog farms owned by Smithfield Foods, one of the largest employers in that part of the state. He has accepted campaign contributions from Smithfield through HAMPAC, the company's political-action arm, and has loudly criticized a group of family farmers who filed nuisance lawsuits against Premium Standard Farms, which is owned by Smithfield. Fifteen of those farmers were awarded $11 million by a Jackson County jury in March of this year.

In Lager's opinion, the DNR, as run by the current administration, is not responsive enough to the 13,000 permit holders, such as Smithfield Foods, that pay a fee to discharge pollutants into Missouri's streams, rivers and lakes.

"I believe DNR's responsibility is to work with industry, to work with agriculture, to work with all these different stakeholders to help them move forward in a way that meets the Clean Water requirements," Lager says. "I want them to stop beating up on businesses and farmers in our state and partner with these people and stop acting like some out-of-control police force that just wants to run around and punish the people who create jobs in this state," Lager says.

But this is where Lager is wrong. The DNR's relationship with industry is much more cozy than combative. Case in point: Robert Brundage.

Brundage is a former corporate attorney for Premium Standard Farms. For the past fifteen years, he has worked for the Missouri Agribusiness Association. According to a professional profile online, Brundage lobbies for environmental and agricultural laws and regulations that are favorable to Missouri agribusiness.

Brundage is intimately involved with the drafting of DNR rules and policies during meetings of the Missouri Clean Water Commission. The seven commissioners are appointed by the governor and change with administrations. Three of Blunt's appointees will be replaced this July by Nixon's choices.

The commissioners are not required to have any environmental or governmental expertise. Brundage, on the other hand, is an authority in these areas, having served as assistant attorney general from 1987 to 1994 in the Agriculture and Environment Division of the Missouri Attorney General's Office. Transcripts show that Brundage is reliably the biggest talker at Clean Water Commission meetings. Sources who frequently attend the meetings say that if Brundage doesn't offer his opinion on a particular topic, the commissioners ask him for it.

The Clean Water Commission also decides which water bodies are included on the state's list of impaired waters. That list is often referred to as the 303(d) list, after its corresponding section of the Clean Water Act. Missouri must compile its revised list every even-numbered year. Water bodies are deemed impaired if they don't support aquatic life or aren't safe to swim in, owing to factors such as pollution, bacteria levels and algae blooms that suffocate water-dwelling plants and animals. When the designation of impaired waters began in 1996, 65 water bodies were listed, compared with 269 today.

The Clean Water Commission usually attempts to de-list a handful of rivers and streams when the 303(d) list comes up for review every two years. Ken Midkiff, of the Sierra Club's Clean Water Campaign (a sister program to the Water Sentinels), explains the commission's logic.

"Take the Big River," Midkiff says. That river, located in mining country southwest of St. Louis, is impaired by lead. "That means that the Doe Run Co., one of the few lead-mining companies left in Missouri, cannot put any discharge into that river containing lead because it already exceeds that standard," Midkiff says. "You can't do anything that would increase the Big River's impairment for lead. That limits industries and municipalities severely. That's why the Clean Water Commission wants to limit the number of waterways on the 'impaired' list as much as possible — it really benefits polluters."

The Jacks Fork River in southern Missouri's Shannon County is an example of a river that was taken off the 303(d) list in 2008. An eight-mile stretch of the Jacks Fork had been listed as impaired in 2004 and 2006, due to high bacteria counts. The source: horse feces from Cross Country Trail Ride, a tourist destination in Eminence. Cross Country Trail Ride boards as many as 3,000 horses on its riverside property and leads tour groups of hundreds of riders at a time. Photos from the company's website indicate that at least part of the "trail" is aquatic; riders are in the Jacks Fork, their horses calf-deep and splashing as the tour follows its course downstream.

After the Jacks Fork was de-listed, it was placed on a DNR watch list, to be monitored under "Total Maximum Daily Load" standards.

"All TMDL means," Midkiff says, "is that there's this lengthy document that is prepared by the DNR and the EPA that goes through the different sources of the problem with that river and recommends ways that the problem can be dealt with."

The removal of the Jacks Fork from the impaired waters list would imply that its conditions have improved, but Midkiff thinks otherwise. "The Jacks Fork remains impaired due to shit — excuse the language," he says. "It is a highly used float stream, but there is no indication to people that the stream is unhealthy for human contact. One recommendation the DNR and EPA made was to limit the horse crossings at the Jacks Fork. It's not a requirement. It's not compulsory. It's strictly voluntary. I think they should go further."

Seyer, the jogger whose dog was sickened by bacteria, wants to see Kiefer Creek added to the state's impaired waters list. But when he presented his E. coli findings to the Clean Water Commission at its meeting in St. Louis last November, he found the commissioners unresponsive.

"They let me go on for 45 minutes," Seyer says. "Their heads were nodding, falling asleep."

The source of the E. coli in Kiefer Creek, Seyer believes, is the bungalow-style houses that were built, in the 1940s and '50s, upstream a half-mile from the edge of Castlewood State Park. The bungalows aren't hooked up to the sewers of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. Instead, they store waste in underground septic tanks. Seyer says those aging tanks may be leaking into the groundwater and the spring that feeds Kiefer Creek.

After Seyer's presentation, Kathleen Logan Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit Missouri Coalition for the Environment, spoke in support of Seyer's conclusions. A representative from the DNR then moved to go on to the meeting's next agenda item. After that, the commissioners began gathering their things. The meeting was ending, but Seyer hadn't received an answer.

Smith raised her hand and asked, "What about Kiefer Creek?"

"What's Kiefer Creek?" asked Commissioner Samuel Leake.

Another commissioner, Ron Hardecke, leaned over and whispered, "That's the presentation they gave about the stream with E. coli problems."

Seyer says, "They all shrugged and turned to the guy from the DNR like, 'What are you going to do?' That guy gets up — it's like a comedy of errors — and says that they'll continue to evaluate the stream and maybe change its classification in three or four years. Then they tabled it, closed the meeting and went home."

The entire experience was laughable, Seyer says. "I'm exasperated, is what I am. That's probably what they wanted me to be."

Seyer was able to extract one promise from the DNR last November. Bill Bryan, the DNR's deputy director and director of the Division of State Parks, told Seyer that he'd be sure to put up a warning sign at Kiefer Creek.

"I hate going up to people and telling them, 'Your kid is swimming in sludge.' I want a sign to tell them so I don't feel responsible for that anymore," Seyer told him. Seyer suggested a sign with wording similar to what he'd seen on signs at Creve Coeur Lake: "No Swimming, No Fishing."

"Why not say, 'Caution: high bacteria levels?'" Bryan offered.

"I said, 'Hey, if you can do it, great,'" Seyer says.

In May, a sign appeared on the bank beside the creek.

"Guess what it says. It says, 'Hey, we don't monitor this stream for water quality, so swim at your own risk. It could have bacteria, cliffs, drop-offs, sharp rocks,'" Seyer says. "That's bullshit. They do monitor it. They know it has dangerous bacteria levels, and they're not telling people. And it's this flimsy thing — it'll be gone in six months."

Seyer laughs a little. "But they met their goal. They put up a sign."

When Seyer jogged at Castlewood State Park one early morning last week, he noticed a newer sign posted at Kiefer Creek. It hadn't dissuaded about 30 members of a local high school track team from standing in water up to their knees. Seyer says he told the kids that, because a light rain had fallen the previous night, the creek was likely contaminated with sewage.

"They all just kind of dropped their heads, like, awww, as they got out of the stream," Seyer says. "I suggested that they should probably take showers as soon as they got home."

This story also appeared in Riverfront Times' sister paper in Kansas City, the Pitch.
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