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Corporate agribusiness gets more sway on Missouri's Clean Water Comission

Current and Jacks Fork rivers
National Parks Service

Legislation now before Gov. Jay Nixon could give corporate agriculture more input into the state’s water resources. It could lead to more industry representatives, which would mean fewer public voices on the Missouri Clean Water Commission.

Near the end of session, it’s not unusual for controversial amendments to be tacked on to bills. This change, sponsored by Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, fits that description.

“Just out of the blue, he offered an amendment that nobody had ever seen,” said Tim Gibbons, communications director for Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “It had never been a stand-alone bill. It had never been vetted by the public or taxpayers.”

The amendmentwas to a bill that requires the Department of Natural Resources to share information on technology for lagoon-based wastewater system. It changes the wording for members of the Clean Water Commission, the state’s oversight panel for the Clean Water Act. The new language calls for “no more than four” representatives of the public and “at least two” representatives of the agriculture and mining industries. Under existing statute, there must be “at least four” public representatives and “no more than two” with industry ties.

The commission lists two members as "industry or mining" now.

“My amendment does not really change anything a whole lot,” said Munzlinger. “It just makes sure that we do have people that will be represented from the industries that are regulated, and currently it doesn’t really say that there has to be any [industry representatives] on there.”

But Gibbons says this minor change could lead to major repercussions, including a corporate takeover of the commission.

“What that language can and will do is completely take the public out of the Clean Water Commission,” said Gibbons.

One of the main duties of the commission is to approve construction permits for facilities that have the potential to damage Missouri waterways, like concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

The commission was praised by some and ridiculed by others for overturning one such permit earlier this year near Trenton, Mo. A company named Trenton Farms intended to build a facility that would house nearly 6,000 hogs. The commission said it wasn’t able to verify that Trenton Farms had “continuing authority” in the state, suggesting it was a shell company established by a larger corporation. Opponents of the operation suggest shell companies allow corporations to evade liability if disaster strikes, like manure overflow into cropland after a flood.

Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, R-Carrollton, attempted to loosen the statutory definition of "continuing authority" shorty after the commission overturned the permit for Trenton Farms.

“What my amendment said, is that if they are a business is good standing in the state of Missouri, that was enough proof to show that they had continuing authority for that permitting process,” said McGaugh.

Although his amendment failed, McGaugh says he's looking to pursue the issue next year. He's running uncontested in the November election.

At least one court battle over CAFOs in the state would have been affected by such a change in statute. Supporters of independent farmers in Callaway County just east of Columbia, Mo. have a long history of fighting the corporate interests of big-agriculture.

Shirley Kidwell has been leading that opposition since the early-1990s, when a 50,000-head hog facility was proposed just a few miles from her doorstep. She's secretary for Friends of Responsible Agriculture, the grassroots organization currently suing that landowner over a new CAFO proposal.

"This particular facility is sited at the headwaters of five different water sheds," said Kidwell. "The primary one is Stinson Creek, which flows through the city of Fulton, Mo., and a portion of it has been on the impaired water list already. The application of large quantities of hog manure on that land will basically run it right into Stinson Creek anytime there’s a rain." 

In 2014, a pre-existing CAFO on this property released 10,000 gallons of waste into a nearby creek, polluting a neighbor's farm and eventually making its way to the Mark Twain National Forest. 

But potential depletion of natural resources isn't her only concern.
"One of the problems with these large confined animal feeding operations is that they are basically taking over the market and putting small farmers out of business," said Kidwell. "They’re also owned by the same people who own the slaughter houses, and the marketing [companies], and the packaging [plants]. They go from the initial birth of the pig, to growing the pig, to selling the pig. ... So they’re basically taking over the entire pork market." 
Gibbons also says the demise of small, independent hog farmers in Missouri began when corporations started taking over livestock production through the use of CAFOs in the late-1980s.

“In 1985, we had 23,000 hog producers in Missouri,” said Gibbons. “Now we’ve got just over 2,000, according to the 2012 consensus. That’s 90 percent put out of business.”

McGaugh, who grew up in rural Carroll County during that time, sees corporate agriculture in a more positive light. He says CAFOs allow hogs to be raised in a more “humane and controlled” atmosphere, and it provides jobs for farmers who grow the animal feed.

“It’s been a win-win in my part of the world,” said McGaugh.

Kidwell says her organization is expecting to hear a court decision about the Callaway County CAFO later this month. They are represented by the same lawyer that helped overturn the construction permit for Trenton Farms in Grundy County. 

View more information on the bill mentioned earlier in the piece here.

Mallory Daily is an intern at the State Capitol Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. Follow on Twitter: @malreports