Washington, DC — Contrary to its own standards, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) failed to have its park water towers and storage facilities professionally inspected, according to state records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These inspections are needed to prevent potentially deadly contamination, such as when salmonella from bird droppings in the town of Gideon’s water tower left 7 dead, 15 hospitalized and more than 650 sickened back in 1993.
Water systems with towers are supposed to be routinely monitored and inspected by trained specialists at least every five years, according to DNR publications. Yet documents obtained by PEER through the Missouri Sunshine Law show at the five state park water systems reviewed, that no water storage facilities have been professionally inspected within that time frame, despite admonishments from DNR’s own Division of Environmental Quality. The five are Knob Noster State Park Campground in Johnson County, Lake Wappapello State Park in Wayne County, Bennett Springs State Park in Laclede County, as well as Camps Derricotte and Sherwood of Cuivre River State Park in Lincoln County. DNR is responsible for 49 public water systems at its 87 state parks and historic sites.
Four of these five parks add chlorine to their water, but without proper maintenance chlorination can make matters worse by masking problems such as total coliform bacteria and generating cancer-causing chemicals called disinfection byproducts. If sanitary defects exist, a flock of birds roosting on a water tower could overwhelm the chlorination. In addition, a chlorinator malfunction could cause salmonella or other pathogens to course through the water lines.
The Missouri Ground Water Rule states that a significant deficiency for finished water storage includes “the existence of any unprotected, inadequately protected or improperly constructed opening in a storage facility.” “DNR needs to have its own water storage facilities inspected ASAP in order to be assured of their sanitary integrity,” stated PEER counsel Kathryn Douglass.
Comprehensive water tower inspection is a costly, difficult and dangerous chore that most public water systems must hire out at a cost of thousands of dollars. Adding insult to injury, DNR is also the primary agency for Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) enforcement, but is not applying its standards to its own facilities.
Further compounding matters, DNR fired its Drinking Water Public Notice Coordinator in late 2012 after she reported that policy was not being followed with Camp Derricotte’s recent rash of violations. During Patricia Ritchie’s 19-year tenure with DNR, she began voicing concerns about chronic on-going violations of the SDWA at state park water systems in 2001 and was harshly criticized for it. In 2002 she reported her concerns to the office of the Missouri State Auditor. That office conducted an investigation in 2003 and, in 2004 issued a report that confirmed Ms. Ritchie’s concerns. She is seeking reinstatement before Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission and has filed a separate suit against DNR in Cole County Circuit Court concerning disability discrimination. Ms. Ritchie is represented by attorney George Smith of Johnston & Smith, LLC in Columbia, Missouri.
“DNR should pay more attention to fixing the problems rather than silencing the messenger,” added Douglass. “Like a plumber whose home has leaky pipes, there should be no excuse for the state’s drinking water quality enforcer leaving its own water towers vulnerable to serious contamination.”