Agriculture and mining industries could gain more influence over Missouri's water regulations if legislation awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon's signature becomes law.
Lawmakers voted in May to allow industry representatives to replace commissioners who are supposed to represent the general public on the state's Clean Water Commission, which sets the state's water quality standards. Those standards guide investigations into illegal contamination and determine which streams and rivers need additional ecological protections.
The proposal, which was sponsored by the GOP but received bipartisan support in the Senate, came in response to the commission drawing attention for invoking a power in February it seldom uses: the authority to strip a large-scale animal feeding lot of its permit. The move unsettled some in the agriculture community who said the decision had no basis in laws or regulations, but it was heralded by farmers who were worried about the environmental effects of the proposed site in north-central Missouri.
The Clean Water Commission is comprised of four representatives of the general public, two representatives of industries and one person with a background in publicly owned wastewater treatment works. All seven commissioners are serving on expired terms, so if Nixon does not appoint new commissioners by the time he leaves office in January, the bill would allow his successor to draw more commissioners from the industries they regulate.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has granted or renewed permits for 521 concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, since January 2010. CAFOs store thousands of animals and can generate millions of gallons of waste a year; waste is typically stored on-site, but can pose a threat to wildlife if it spills into a stream or river. Large CAFOs "easily equal a small city in terms of waste production," the Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a 2004 report.
Of the 521 permits, two have been challenged and brought before the Clean Water Commission; only the permit for the site near Trenton, about 50 miles from the Iowa border, was revoked. The operation would generate more than 90 tons of manure each year along with millions of gallons of wastewater, according to its permit application.
The commission revoked the permit on a 4-2 vote, saying the limited liability corporation behind the application had not proven it had the assets to maintain the facility or pay to clean up any accidents; the Midwestern-based company is appealing that decision in court.
Ashley McCarty, a commissioner who is executive director of the farmers' interest group Missouri Farmers Care, said the CAFO met state permitting standards, and nothing in the law called for the commission consider the applicant's assets. She sees the bill as a "fairly minor modification that allows the governor some flexibility."
Sen. Brian Munzlinger added the commission proposal onto another bill rather than giving a public hearing. He said the commission's vote sent ripples beyond Trenton.
"We in the agriculture industry and mining said 'Hey, this (decision) could affect a lot more than agriculture,'" said Munzlinger, a Williamstown Republican who owns a farm.
Others on the commission see the legislation as retribution.
"The audacity — how can you say 'We don't want public representation'?" commissioner Wallis Warren said, adding that public is already underrepresented and that citizens have to take off from work to come to meetings while corporate applicants usually dispatch attorneys.
Residents who opposed the CAFO pooled their money and hired an attorney to challenge the permit, said John Rice, a farmer in the Trenton area. Opponents of the project aren't "tree-huggers," or "trying to get CAFOs out of Missouri," Rice said. "We're just trying to keep them far enough away from people's houses."
It's "standard operating procedure" for agriculture corporations to increase their influence on a regulatory body after it begins standing up to them, said John Crabtree, media director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based nonprofit that advocates for family farms and monitors agricultural affairs.
Permitting bodies present one of the few opportunities to exercise oversight over CAFOs, because fines and penalties in most states are too small to deter operations from irresponsible behavior, he said.
"Those things are rarely much more than an annoyance. It's whether or not you can get the legal permission to build the facilities, and that's the key," he said. "It's the place where you want to stack the deck."