Pollution at Lake of the Ozarks, complicated by denial and cover-ups
Naturally environmentalists are more concerned about the degradation of rivers, especially if they cut through uninhabited, scenic country, than a reservoir whose shores are lined with condos and whose waters are whipped to a froth by cabin cruisers. THE SCARS OF PROJECT 459, journalist Traci Angel’s lively account of water quality problems at Lake of the Ozarks, reports that when concerned citizen Barbara Fredholm contacted the Sierra Club to start a local chapter she was told, “the Lake of the Ozarks is a lost cause.”
The Lake’s 55,000 acres of murky Osage River water is held back by Bagnell Dam, which was closed in 1931. Ostensibly, Project 459 was to supply hydropower to lead mines in eastern Missouri, which were in a downward spiral of operation like all American industries at the beginning of the Depression. The financing and justifications of Lake of the Ozarks were scandalous. Two out of three of the drivers of the scheme ended up doing time in federal penitentiaries. The Lake’s origin smells like Polanski’s Chinatown, but without the murders and incest
Today, certain coves at Lake of the Ozarks stink from time to time, polluted by inadequately treated human and animal waste. The politics of dealing with the problem are complex, but driven more from old-fashioned self-interest than out and out corruption. Still, this book reveals a pattern of inadequate response to a real problem.
It is understandable that the Sierra Club would have a minimal interest in an aging impoundment owned by a power company that is overbuilt and under-regulated, but the book finds the behavior of some politicians and government agencies unforgivable. In 2009 the Missouri Department of Natural Resources delayed releasing until after Memorial Day a report that had found dangerous levels of E. coli bacteria in popular swimming coves, fearing the tourist season would be harmed. The press ran with this story and it became a scandal. Heads rolled in Jefferson City.
Unfortunately, the lesson learned, Angel found, was that now our political and regulatory agencies run and hide when queried about water quality problems. When she sought an interview with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, she was told in an email: “We understand that the University of Arkansas Press has contracted with you to write this book, which will be sold for a profit. Given that we are a public agency supported by tax dollars, we have determined that it is not an appropriate use of limited staff time to participate in these types of interviews.” The implication of such a policy pretty much shuts down the publication of books, newspapers, radio, television and magazines, as they are all “sold for a profit.” Further, such a policy would shield from public scrutiny information derived from publicly funded research
When she tried to get information from Governor Jay Nixon she was told to check in with the Department of Natural Resources and “insofar as making the Department available for interviews, I believe the Department of Natural Resources is in the best position to make the call on that and I won’t be compelling them otherwise.”
So who will tell the truth about the environmental problems of a geriatric reservoir? Actually, the author found a scattering of local residents, business people and a few politicians and bureaucrats who do approach the problem straightforwardly. Apparently Angel herself is part of the American tradition of muckraking journalists – and there’s some smelly muck to rake down there in Lake of the Ozarks.
Modified landscapes, like dammed rivers, are still environments that can be further neglected and abused. Traci Angel does, by the way, point out some outstanding natural features like the spectacular Ha-Ha-Tonka State Park which is intelligently managed by a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources which dropped the ball on the pollution issue.
Lake of the Ozarks isn’t a lost cause but its heritage of lies and hype continue to plague its management.
The book is available at www.amazon.com