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The greatest E. coli risk at Lake of the Ozarks may not be from the water

Undies are in bunches in Jeff City.  Gov. Nixon is embarrassed that his lawyer-laden government has been caught not protecting the public from health risks of E. coli, a family of bacteria whose presence in water is a marker of fecal contamination from human and animal sources. Department of Natural Resources officials, and perhaps the governor, judged that the political risk of stating that the lake water was polluted apparently outweighed the public health risk of water contact, at least until after Memorial Day weekend.

The blame game is in full swing, but nobody is explaining that the sources of dangerous infections from  E. coli are unlikely to come from the lake water.

All humans have E. coli in their intestines, but a few strains of E. coli can cause illness and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the strains of E. coli that are dangerous to humans primarily come from cattle, though E. coli is present in the feces of humans, deer, elk, swine and other animals. According to the CDC, there are about 70,000 E. coli infections in humans annually in the US. No announcements have been made that indicate that the E. coli in Lake of the Ozarks include any deadly strains.

A periodic report obtained in May 2009 from a five-year study at Lake of the Ozarks indicated that high levels of E. coli had been found at various places around the lake. Unrelated routine sampling from water at beaches at Lake of the Ozarks State Park resulted in those beaches being closed during part of June and July, without any public announcement.

In addition to the tens of thousands of tourists and vacation home-owners at Lake of the Ozarks, the revelers at Party Cove  have brought the lake notoriety and big crowds. The Anderson Hollow Cove adjacent to Lake of the Ozarks State Park is the current site of Party Cove, where thousands of boaters congregate on Memorial Day weekend to kick off the summer boating season. Boating generally and cove parties have a huge impact on the local economy at the east end of Lake of the Ozarks, and Nixon seems to be taking steps to show that his administration does not tolerate dithering about important issues of public health, even if public announcements would have spoiled the Memorial Day weekend trade.

DNR issued a press release on June 26, which identified only sampling locations well away from Lake of the Ozarks State Park and ended with a statistical explanation that minimized any impression of risk from water contact. This press release suggested that high E. coli levels were the result of rainfall just before the samples were taken. A press released followed on July 16, repeating that the May sample results were temporarily elevated due to recent rainfall and apologizing for not having released the May results earlier.

On September 23, Gov. Nixon and DNR Director Templeton went to Osage Beach to announce a major attack on pollution of Lake of the Ozarks. Speaking to media at the governor’s press conference, Osage Beach mayor Penny Lyons disagreed that the lake water was dirty, blaming the problem on rainfall flushing goose droppings into the lake.

DNR Communications Director Susanne Medley and DNR Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel (also a lawyer) resigned under fire in late September. Medley’s claim has never been denied or refuted that she had informed Nixon’s staff assistant Jeff Mazur on May 29 of results from May 2009 sampling of sites around the lake. Bindbeutel apparently took the hit for DNR not having issued a press release when the May sampling results became available and when the state park beaches were closed, even though there’s a possibility that he was acting under instructions from the governor’s staff .  Nixon appointed lawyer Bill Bryan to become the head of DNR State Parks division, replacing the retiring Doug Eiken, and deputy director of DNR, replacing Bindbeutel, whom Nixon then nominated to the Administrative Hearing Commission.

On September 30, Nixon suspended  Templeton for two weeks without pay while an investigation of DNR proceeds, appointing Bryan as acting director, so that he now holds three positions at DNR. Two employees of Lake of the Ozarks State Park have been suspended while an investigation proceeds concerning beach closings in the park.

Lake of the Ozarks is not well-known for its water quality, and improving its water quality will be enormously expensive and will move very slowly. There are probably tens of thousands of septic tanks that contribute to the pollution, along with run-off from paved surfaces and fertilized lawns, effluents from malfunctioning sewer treatment plants and all that stuff that people and animals put directly into the water.

The Centers for Disease Control has a map of outbreaks of human E. coli illness. The E. coli strains causing the outbreaks have been carried in packaged meats, processed foods and bagged vegetables. While swimming in contact with E. coli undoubtedly can cause illness, usually mild, the greater public health danger is in our modern methods of processing and distributing food that has been tainted by bacteria from cattle or other livestock. The revelers in Party Cove are probably more likely to ingest dangerous E. coli from their ground beef, pizza, and salads than from the lake water. If deadly strains of E. coli are in the Ozarks surface water, the likely source is cattle or swine.

Gov. Nixon’s hysterical sweep to round up and punish polluters at Lake of the Ozarks is for show. Until the legislature provides the funding for DNR to properly administer and enforce clean water laws, Missouri’s waters will continue to be compromised. No real water quality progress can be made in many parts of Missouri without the full participation of the cattle, hog and poultry industries.


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

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