Washington, DC — Missouri’s Cuivre River State Park has racked up 20 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2011, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Most of these violations are health-based and involve maximum contaminant level violations where two or more unsafe samples were found over a period of months while another involved deadly E. coli bacteria triggering a mandatory boil water order.
Violations were found at three units of Cuivre River State Park in Lincoln County, just north of St. Louis. Throughout the park, 54 samples collected in the distribution systems have tested positive for total coliform bacteria over the past three years. In addition, the drinking water systems at Camp Derricotte, Camp Sherwood, and the Picnic Shelter failed to test for total coliform bacteria in May 2014, adding the three most recent violations to Cuivre River’s already long list. More recently, a routine sample collected on June 3, 2014 at the Camp Sherwood dining lodge tested positive for total coliform bacteria.
None of the contaminated samples came from park wells (some drilled back in the 1930s) but instead came from water distribution systems. While there may be multiple causes for the unsafe samples, another vintage feature of the park, its water towers, are prime suspects. Inspection reports document the old towers have needed to be descaled, sealed and repainted. At the same time, visible amounts of rust and penetration by vines and other vegetation are apparent. Despite these conditions, there are no records that these towers have received comprehensive inspections by trained specialists.
“PEER has been pressing the state for years to have these water towers inspected appropriately,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, pointing to a September 9, 2013 letter from PEER to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Sarah Parker Pauley urging inspections, that was copied to both the State Auditor and Governor but never received a response. “The sanitary integrity of a water tower or storage facility is critical.”
The last time deaths attributable to a public water system occurred in Missouri they were due to Salmonella contamination of a water tower in the small town of Gideon in 1993; 7 people died, 15 were hospitalized and 650 fell ill.
The Missouri DNR both operates state parks and is responsible for overseeing Safe Drinking Water Act compliance in 2,700 public water systems across the state. It has issued multiple publications directing public water systems to let no more than five years lapse between inspections of their water towers by trained specialists. Yet documents obtained by PEER under the Missouri Sunshine Law show that DNR ignored its own directive. Indeed, six of the 20 violations are for failure to monitor the integrity of park water system components.
To make up for lack of inspections, DNR had stepped up chlorination efforts. “Unfortunately, chlorination of a contaminated water tower only masks the problem. It also generates disinfection byproducts, which are known carcinogens,” added Dumais. “Inspecting old water towers may not be convenient or sexy but it is vital to public health.”