An environmental watchdog group is raising concerns over the lack of adequate drinking water and restroom services at Missouri parks.

Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources logo - Image courtesy of Missouri DNR

Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources logo – Image courtesy of Missouri DNR

According to records obtained from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), neither amenity has been available since August at Elephant Rocks State Park, which averages 800 visitors a day.

Meanwhile, Cuivre River State Park racked up 20 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in three years.

Laura Dumais with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the parks aren’t properly maintaining their water distribution.  “The way they’re doing it is essentially just putting in a lot of chlorine and hoping that will take out anything that’s bad in there” said  Dumais.  “What we’re saying is what they really have to do is affirmatively go in, inspect and clean the tank in the first place.  Then they’ll have to use less chlorine, which obviously is a chemical that, in itself, can have harmful effects for people.”

PEER says Missouri’s voluntary approach to compliance with regulations for water tower inspections is not working.  It’s planning to notify the Environmental Protection Agency about the problem.

Dumais says the group has so far declined to bring a lawsuit against the state.  “This might be one of those problems that is best resolved politically, and not through the court system.  But we’re keeping an eye on it.  If there’s a potential lawsuit that we might be able to file, that might be something that we would get involved with in the future.  But we’re not affirmatively taking steps in that direction at this time.”

Dumais says PEER noticed Missourians recently passed a tax extension which provides funding for parks and water conservation.  “It was something like 80 percent by voters” said Dumais.  “It’s something that the residents of Missouri really support, cleaning up their drinking water and cleaning up the state parks.  And (it’s) something that we think should be an obvious thing to use the money for.”

The measure passed by voters renews a small sales tax – one-half of one percent – which raises $90 million a year for parks and water conservation.  The Department of Natural Resources hasn’t stated if the money could be used to address the contamination issue.

State parks director Bill Bryan recently testified before a Missouri House committee that his department has a $212 million backlog of “unscheduled maintenance”.  DNR says unscheduled maintenance refers to projects that have not yet reached a priority level.

PEER contends DNR could drastically reduce water contamination at its parks by having its water towers and storage facilities professionally inspected.

In a 2014 press release, it made mention that the agency is responsible for overseeing Safe Drinking Water Act compliance in public waterways in the state.  PEER claims DNR has issued multiple publications instructing public water systems to have trained water specialists inspect their water towers at least once every five years, but is ignoring its own directive by not having water towers at state parks maintained in the same manner.

DNR contends it’s spent almost $2.4 million in the last five years making improvements to drinking water at state parks.  The agency says its projects have included complete system rebuilds as well as rehabilitation of water towers and various other upgrades.  With regard to the situation at Elephant Rocks State Park, it says it’s spent $17,000 on system maintenance and repairs, and claims temporary restrooms are provided during recreational season.

In a statement, DNR spokesperson Tom Bastian said “there is virtually no deferred maintenance in Missouri’s nationally recognized, award winning state park system”.

A former DNR public notice coordinator for safe drinking water compliance, Patricia Ritchie, challenged her dismissal under the state whistleblower protection law after she reported concerns of drinking water safety at Missouri state parks to the State Auditor in 2003.