KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Large amounts of sewage that contribute to sometimes dangerous bacteria levels have spilling into Missouri waterways when rain floods decaying sewer systems or old pipes break.
Hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage have spilled into Missouri's waterways in the past year alone, according to data from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
DNR spokesman Travis Ford told The Kansas City Star the agency is conducting an internal investigation into its own procedures because of concerns about the risk to human health.
"We consider this to be a serious problem," Ford said.
While the handling of E. coli problems at the Lake of the Ozarks has generated statewide attention, other lakes also have been affected by similar problems as contaminated water from sewage spills and runoff carrying animal waste flows into them.
In the past two years, water quality officials have recommended closing state beaches at nine lakes besides the Lake of the Ozarks.
The sewage spills have been widespread, occurring in locations from Kansas City in the west to St. Louis in the east.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, 3 million gallons of raw sewage poured into a south Kansas City stream.
Leaks can prompt costly penalties, but still they continue.
Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said no one knows the extent of the problem.
"It's everywhere," said Smith, whose group has sued over St. Louis sewage overflows. "There are hundreds of occasions E. coli levels have been high, and we don't even know it."
The state has begun to crack down. Two weeks ago, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a zero-tolerance war on those who spill raw sewage into the Lake of the Ozarks.
Since then, the zero-tolerance policy has been expanded to include every water body in Missouri, Ford said.
"The department has a very full and extensive range of enforcement authority," he said. "Our plan is to use that enforcement authority against violators, and by doing that we think we can reduce spills."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)