JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon fired a longtime aide and reinstated Missouri's environmental chief Friday while announcing that an investigation revealed repeated state failures to protect the public from contaminated waterways.
Nixon took responsibility for poor decisions and communication within his administration, but asserted that Missouri's Department of Natural Resources has "long-standing, institutional problems with the handling of water quality issues."
An internal review found 10 cases over the past three years -- half of which occurred this year -- in which public beaches at state parks were not closed despite high E. coli levels, Nixon said. In 14 other cases since 2005, the DNR apparently kept quiet that high fecal coliform bacteria levels existed in the Lake of the Ozarks, Nixon said.
"For years, the department has ignored and failed to inform the public of troubling water sampling results. But for the first time, people are being held accountable," said Nixon, a Democrat who took office in January.
The governor announced he is rescinding the appointment of Joe Bindbeutel to the state Administrative Hearing Commission, because Bindbeutel was "the chief decision-maker" in delaying the release of E. coli test results earlier this year when he was deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources. There already was doubt Bindbeutel could win confirmation from the Legislature.
But Nixon said DNR Director Mark Templeton would be reinstated to his job next week after being suspended for more than two weeks without pay.
"Mark has served a just punishment," Nixon said. "He has faced reproach from the public and the press. He has spoken at length about his own failings on this matter, he has paid a price for the department's mistakes."
Nixon's administration has been under fire since July 16, when The Kansas City Star revealed the DNR had waited until late June to release results from a May water quality test showing high E. coli levels in numerous parts of the Lake of the Ozarks.
The governor said Friday he didn't become aware until that report that the DNR delayed the release of the results. Testimony by DNR employees to Senate staff investigating the delay has revealed that top department administrators and members of Nixon's staff were told of the results in late May.
"Clearly the communication could have been better, crisper and more accurate here, and regardless of whether any of that is my fault or not, it is my responsibility," Nixon said.
The governor did not suspend or fire anyone who works in his office. He also stressed that problems with protecting the public from poor water began before he became governor. He distributed information showing five failures to close beaches and a dozen instances when the public was not told of high bacteria during the administration of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.
Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said Nixon's office was protecting gubernatorial aides while risking public safety.
"Nixon's pathetic attempt to self-police his own administration led to nothing but a whitewash," Smith said.
Nixon ordered the internal review of the department on Sept. 30 while revealing that the agency twice failed to close a public beach at the Lake of the Ozarks despite high E. coli levels in May -- and then provided him false information indicating the beach was closed.
There was no written report from the internal review, and the explanation is limited for why beaches were not closed and wastewater discharges were not publicized.
State park official Jim Yancey has said a Lake of the Ozarks beach was open because high E. coli results came when he was on vacation and stayed open because he missed results from a follow-up test. It is unclear why the other beaches were not closed.
Nixon said he hopes recent attention about E. coli can improve Missouri's water quality.
In September, he said there would be environmental inspections for roughly 400 facilities with permits to discharge wastewater into the Lake of the Ozarks and a lakewide water quality study.
He said Friday that 274 inspections so far have resulted in 54 warning letters and 21 violation notices.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)