Millions of cattle and hogs fatten up at Kansas' more than 1,750 large-scale livestock feedlots, yet the state regulatory agency entrusted with overseeing those confined feeding operations has no full-time professional environmental engineers at the moment.
There are four vacancies in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's Livestock Waste Management Section, the last created by a retirement in November. That's created a backlog of between 20 and 30 permits for new or expanding feeding operations and delays of an additional three months to process wastewater permit applications for confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, said Tara Mahin, the section's head.
"It has really put the brakes on anybody getting a new facility started or expanding their facility," said Mahin, who hired a part-time engineer in February and notes that it's hard to recruit replacements because of a shortage of available engineers and the lower government pay compared to private industry.
The state says the vacancies aren't causing public safety concerns because wastewater plans for new or expanding facilities are still being reviewed — though at a slower pace — but activists and residents who live near the feedlots say qualified engineers are needed to protect the environment and the people living near the facilities.
"The public should care because the two main risks of waste management in these CAFOs is the leakage of waste to groundwater or overflow to surface water," said Craig Volland, chairman of the agriculture committee for the Kansas Sierra Club. "And in order to ensure this does not occur, it requires sufficient engineering judgment to ensure these are done correctly."
Kansas — which the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says has the nation's third-most cattle in feedlots at 2.09 million — does not require CAFO developers to use a professional engineer to draw up the plans for their facilities, although most of them do, Volland said, noting that makes it even more vital for state regulators reviewing such plans to have qualified engineers.
Mahin pointed out that engineers don't handle the routine inspections of existing facilities.
Joyce Quinn found out about the vacancies when she tried to call the engineer she normally deals with in order to check on the proposed expansion of a hog-feeding facility near her home in Almena, just a few miles from the Nebraska border.
"I was very surprised to find out there weren't any engineers," Quinn said. "I don't know how they can expect to go through the applications and determine who is going to be permitted if they don't even have someone on staff to do that job. And it's a big issue in our county."
She said she is concerned about the water, because that resource won't be there forever and CAFOs use a lot of it. Plus, she said, the methane from the feedlots is so bad that if you go outside in the evening it gives you a headache, although she concedes that without state air quality laws on the books there is not much the engineers can do about that.
"We can't be in our yards any more in the evenings because it just reeks," Quinn said. "When it rains, we don't know what ... the rain smells like anymore."
The Kansas Livestock Association has its own for-profit company that offers environmental engineering services, said Clayton Huseman, executive director of the KLA's feedyard division.
"This isn't a pressing issue from our standpoint," Huseman said. "We don't have the industry beating on our door saying we have a problem here that needs to be fixed."
But the private industry's engineers are working on behalf of the facilities' developers, not the public interest, Volland argues.
"KDHE's job is to provide these technical overviews on behalf of the public interest, he said. "There needs to be somebody with adequate qualifications to double check the work of the CAFOs or livestock operations."