Part Three: The muck stops here
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Part Three: The muck stops here

Date: November 4, 2009
By: Rebecca Berg and Max Reiss
State Capitol Bureau
Links: See the series on Sewage at the Lake

JEFFERSON CITY - A tangled web of bureaucracy keeps septic tanks flowing into the Lake of the Ozarks.

At the Lake of the Ozarks, a number of governmental entities have a stake in environmental and health responsibilities, including the state's Natural Resources and Health departments along with various county governments. This wide distribution of responsibilities can create confusion, and some government employees said they lack a full understanding of how to handle problems posed by failing on-site, or residential, septic systems.

In theory, the organizational structure is well defined.

According to official state publications and government employees, The Natural Resources Department is responsible, among other things, for water quality in lakes and rivers and for wastewater management systems at commercial and industrial sites. The Health Department is responsible for on-site, or residential, septic systems and for health threats that affect the public.

In practice, the hierarchy is not so simple. Who is responsible, for example, when wastewater from septic tanks regulated by the Health Department drains into Missouri waters monitored by the Natural Resources Department?

One document, a "Memorandum of Understanding" between the departments of Natural Resources and Health, would seem to answer this question.

According to the 2003 agreement, both departments should notify each other and act cooperatively as soon as information is received of "contamination which may affect the public health or the environment."

Last summer, however, the Natural Resources Department acted alone in closing beaches, nearly one month late, in response to high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Natural Resources Department Director Mark Templeton told Senate investigators that he did not know of the "Memorandum of Understanding" at the time and did not consider contacting the Health Department.

"This was not presented to me as a public health issue," Templeton said. "It did not come up in the discussions about sharing it. The discussions I was involved in, I  do not recall it coming up about sharing...information with the Department of Health."

Still, Templeton does not deny that the lake's poor water quality could have come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health.

"I think that if you have information about high E. coli in a certain period of time when you can act on it, yes, it is a public health issue," Templeton said to the Senate staffer.

Templeton refused repeated requests for further comment. A spokesman for the Natural Resources Department said the department will be looking into future cooperation with the Health Department.

Former Natural Resources Department Spokesperson Susanne Medley said she received criticism from within her department when she contacted the Health Department about the high test results.

"When I sent the press release out I contacted Kit Wagar, who is the director of communications for the Department of Health, to give him a heads up because I thought it might generate some calls to the Department of Health and I didn't want him to be surprised," Medley said in statements made to Senate investigators.

"And I thought it was really odd when I sent out a message to everyone who had been involved...but (Water Quality Monitoring Section Chief) Tim Reilly sent me an email back saying, 'Thanks for getting Health invovled, Suzanne.'"

Only later, Medley said, after the Natural Resources Department delayed the release of water quality test results, did she learn of the agreement between the Natural Resources Department and the Health Department. When she wanted to read it, she said she discovered her department did not even possess a copy of the document.

Murky waters

Just as the Natural Resources Department did not notify the Health Department about high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks, Russell Lilly, an environmental specialist for the Health Department, said "there would not necessarily be any notification" of the Natural Resources Department if the Health Department were to find a malfunctioning septic tank.

Similarly, Jim Gaughan, the on-site waste water programming coordinator for the Health Department, said he would not contact the Natural Resources Department if he learned of sewage draining into the lake.

"Currently there isn't a policy in place or a procedure to do that reporting," Gaughan said in an interview. "If either agency decided there was a benefit to a need for both agencies to be involved, that could be done, but it currently isn't done."

The Health Department Director Margaret Donnelly did not respond to requests for comment.

Adding to the confusion is that the Health Department monitors on-site waste water management in some counties, but not others.

Of the four counties at the Lake, only Miller county has its on-site septic systems monitored directly by the Health Department. In other counties, the burden of dealing with septic tanks has been outsourced entirely to local government officials by the state health agency.

The environmental public health specialist for Benton County, Tracy Rank, says she has encountered many failing septic tanks; however, she estimates that the number of leaking systems is far greater than that she has seen in an official capacity. Even so, Rank can only investigate a septic system if a complaint is filed with the county. 

"If somebody has a failing system, we can't actually 'head hunt,'" Rank said. "We can't go out and just look for them. The state just doesn't really allow us to do that."

Jim Miller, the Morgan County environmental public health specialist, has had similar experiences. He said malfunctioning septic systems are often discovered purely by chance.

"Unless somebody just happens to see it and see that it's leaking and causing a problem, it's not something we would see unless we happen to be out in the county and see something while we're looking at something else," Miller said.

Miller added that leaking septic tanks have never been presented to him as an environmental issue that might concern the Natural Resources Department.

"If DNR wants to be notified, I'd be happy to notify them, but it's not something that they'd be involved in on the residential side that we have control over."

Thousands of Complaints

While the inter-agency governmental communication may be limited,  the Natural Resources Department is being alerted to problems by concerned residents.

A public-records Sunshine Request revealed more than 4,000 complaints to the Natural Resources Department regarding failing septic tanks in the four counties surrounding the lake during the past five years. These complaints consist of nearly 20 percent of all septic systems complaints received by the department in the past five years.

Because the Natural Resources Department is not responsible for on-site septic systems, however, it is unclear how many, if any, of these complaints have been addressed. It is also unclear if complaints received first at the county level are included in these numbers.

Continuing past precedents

Gov. Jay Nixon said recently that past precedent is the reason the Natural Resources Department continues to address problems that normally would be handled by the Health Department.

"DNR has the park there (at the Lake of the Ozarks), they have in the past done this testing, they were a part of the original Watershed Alliance testing, and ultimately one of the charges of the Department of Natural Resources is the protection of our natural resources," Nixon said. "If DNR does its job effectively and efficiently, the Department of Health isn't really needed. If you keep the water clean, it's really boring over at Health."

If -- as the governor suggested -- it has been boring at the Health Department, it has been anything but at the Natural Resources Department.

Controversy regarding the Natural Resources Department over the summer has recently resulted in personnel terminations. Earlier this month, the appointment of former Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Joe Bindbeutel to another agency was withdrawn after Bindbeutel's state Senator refused to support his nomination.

More recently, Jim Yancey, the head of the environmental section for state parks at the Natural Resources Department, was fired because beaches with high levels of E. coli had not being closed.

While Templeton stopped short of identifying problems in communication between government departments in his testimony to Senate staffers, Templeton said his department and the Health Department should consider looking at the Memorandum of Understanding again and adapting the document to meet current needs of the departments.

"(Department of Health Director) Margaret Donnelly and I have spoken about the need to update that document and make sure that everyone in our department understands the protocols and procedures related to that," Templeton said in statements made to Senate investigators.

Tomorrow, this series will examine possible alternatives to septic systems at the Lake of the Ozarks.