Missouri suspends two employees over failure to close beaches

JEFFERSON CITY | The Missouri Department of Natural Resources suspended two employees Friday as part of an investigation into the agency's failure to close a public beach at the Lake of the Ozarks despite tests showing bacteria-infested water.

Agency spokesman Travis Ford declined to identify the suspended workers, who were placed on unpaid leave for five days, or describe their job duties. The suspensions were announced after business hours Friday.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Nixon held a conference call with reporters to sharply criticize the Department of Natural Resources for not closing a public beach after two May tests indicated high bacteria levels and to announce the two-week suspension of DNR Director Mark Templeton.

The Democratic governor said Wednesday that he was wrongly told by the agency that the beach had been closed. Nixon directed interim DNR director Bill Bryan to investigate why beaches were not closed, giving him authority to discipline state workers.

Part of the confusion about whether beaches were closed appears to have stemmed from the way DNR records its data. Ford said Friday that an electronic spreadsheet used to track test results automatically indicates that a beach should be closed when bacteria levels reach certain thresholds. That doesn't mean the beach actually was closed.

Department records released Friday to The Associated Press show E. coli levels at a Lake of the Ozarks beach were high enough to close the beach at least once during each of the last four years.

In 2006 and 2007, E. coli levels hit that threshold in the first sample taken at the end of May. In 2008, the first two samples had high bacteria levels. This year, bacteria was high in all but one of six samples taken from May through June 15.

E. coli can cause influenza-like illnesses and death in people infected through open cuts or when it is swallowed. The state health department has said it is unaware of anyone sickened after swimming in the Lake of the Ozarks.

Nixon's administration has been under fire since July, when media reports revealed the DNR waited until late June to release results of a different set of tests taken May 26 showing high E. coli levels at numerous other locations in the lake.

The governor's office initially said it did not learn of the May 26 test results until June 23, when it said it immediately directed the results to be released. But that timeline has been questioned. A former DNR employee has said she told a Nixon aide about high bacteria levels on May 29.