Nixon orders probe and punishments over Lake of Ozarks pollution controversy
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2009 - Declaring that he's "angrier than words can describe,'' Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced today he's ordered an investigation into how the state Department of Natural Resources "mishandled" -- as he sees it -- the discovery last spring of high E. coli levels in the Lake of the Ozarks.
Department director Mark Templeton has been put on two weeks unpaid leave, and Nixon has ordered deputy Bill Bryan -- who just recently joined the department -- to conduct an investigation to determine who was to blame for:
- Failing to close the affected beaches in June when they should have been closed.
- Providing the governor with incorrect information about the department's actions, which he then stated as fact during a news conference last week at the lake.
The furor over the faulty facts overshadowed Nixon's intention at that news conference, which was supposed to highlight his commitment to cleaning up Missouri's most popular, most developed and most heavily used recreational lake.
"I expect more from the Department of Natural Resources," said Nixon, who made his political name two decades ago by emphasizing his concern about the environment.
Nixon called it "an outrage'' that polluted beaches had been kept open in late May and early June when they should have been closed, adding, "Some Missourians were needlessly put at risk."
But Liz Forrestal, head of the nonpartisan Missouri Votes Conservation, contends that the governor appears to be unfairly targeting Templeton, who has held the top DNR post for only a short time.
The environmental group has met with Templeton several times and likes him, Forrestal said. "The last thing we want to see is Mark Templeton being the fall guy for low-level bungling in DNR and the governor's office."
According to documents provided by his office, the lake's Public Beach No. 1 should have been closed from roughly May 21 -- when contamination results were received from water samples taken May 18 -- until June 4. But the beach remained open.
Nixon says he was inaccurately told last week, and then told reporters, that the beach had been closed during those two weeks.
Nixon and his staff have been buffeted by the controversy for weeks, ever since the Kansas City Star first reported that the governor's office had known about the problems with E. coli at the lake earlier than the governor initially had claimed.
For months, Nixon and his staff have said they first became aware of the problem in late June.
Since then, it's been determined that one of Nixon's policy advisers -- Jeff Mazur -- had been advised by a DNR staffer of the potentially dangerous E. coli results as early as May 29. That's 11 days after the initial tests detecting high levels of E. coli contamination had been conducted, and roughly a week after DNR knew the results.
The governor said that the E. coli levels in some areas were five times the allowed limit.
Mazur said today that he did not share the information with others in Nixon's office because he viewed his conversation as an "initial heads-up," adding that the discussion entailed "something less than a full explanation of results" and that "I was willing in good faith" to rely on DNR's assessment and timetable.
Mazur said he didn't get detailed final results until June 24 or 25. He acknowledged that perhaps he should have more aggressively probed the department when he initially learned of the pollution problem. "My mistake is not having asked more questions," he said.
Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti acknowledged to reporters Wednesday that he had been aware of some of Mazur's conversations with then-DNC press spokeswoman Suzanne Medley -- even as Cardetti had denied to reporters that Nixon's staff had any early knowledge of the E.coli problem.
Cardetti said it was his understanding, then and now, that the Mazur-Medley conversations were not indepth discussions of the gravity of the problem.
E. coli contamination -- which has been linked to serious illness and deaths -- is caused when waste from humans and other animals gets into water.
Templeton attributed part of the problem at Lake of the Ozarks to the continued use of septic systems by some lakefront properties, instead of being linked to a sewer system.
The Mazur-Medley conversations became public last week, when Medley testified before a state Senate panel probing the E. coli controversy.
Panel chairman Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said late Wednesday, “The one fact that we can all agree on, is that the public’s trust has been violated and the public’s safety has been put at risk."
Lager blamed Templeton and others for blocking the panel's investigation. "On six separate occasions I have requested meetings with Gov. Nixon to voice my concerns and frustrations with these roadblocks. Unfortunately, those meetings have never occurred nor have I been given a response to my requests," Lager said.
"I am grateful that the governor has finally decided to join the committee’s efforts in getting to the truth surrounding this willful disregard for public safety, which placed countless Missourians at risk...."
Nixon chief of staff John Watson said Wednesday that DNR's staff may face restructuring. He also indicated that it had yet to be determined what Templeton's future would be at DNR once his leave ends, and which other department employees -- or others in Nixon's administration -- would face punishments.
Ironically, Templeton joined Watson and other top Nixon aides on Wednesday's conference call held after the governor had completed his angry statement.
When asked about his own punishment, Templeton said, "Accountability is appropriate."
Templeton had given the governor the faulty information last week, which Templeton said he'd obtained from lower-level staff. Templeton said he had no reason to believe that anyone had intentionally given him -- and, in turn, Nixon -- the inaccurate information.
But the bigger concern, for the public, is likely why beaches remained open for swimming when they were dangerously polluted.
And there's also the matter of how beach closures are handled. Now, a sign is simply put up. Nixon's aides indicated that stronger measures -- such as barricades -- are being considered.
Forrestal, with the Missouri Votes group, said its members are concerned about E. coli issues. But there are also other environmental matters that the governor has failed to address since taking office, she said.
Forrestal emphasized that environmental groups had high hopes for Nixon, whom they viewed as far superior to former Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican deemed too close to corporate interests.
"We are looking for more from the Nixon administration on environmental issues and we hope this is not the legacy that he leaves,'' she said. "More environmental issues need to be dealt with. We have not seen progress in a number of areas."
That said, Forrestal added that environmentalists had been pleased so far with what they'd seen with Templeton, and don't want to lose him.