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A permit change at one Missouri CAFO worries environmentalists as they seek stricter regulation

Several large hogs stand confined in pens inside a building. They are crowded side by side within steel fencing.
Jeff Roberson
In this April 30, 2009 file photo, hogs are seen at a finishing facility in Auxvasse, Missouri. Environmentalists says a recent permit change at a hog facility in Sullivan County does not bode well as the Missouri Department of Natural Resources considers changes to the master general permits for CAFOs.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is in the process of renewing its master general permit for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations throughout the state. Environmental groups worry the new regulations won’t be stringent enough, pointing to a recent permit change at one facility.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is in the midst of taking input on new master general permits for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — commonly called CAFOs.

It’s a process the department goes through every five years.

Yet while environmentalists and some farmers and rural advocates see it as an opportunity to restrict pollution from CAFOs, they say a recent permit change at a large hog operation in north central Missouri is worrying.

This month, the same week DNR was holding its final public meeting on the master general permits, the department issued a general permit to Smithfield’s South Meadows hog feeding operation in Sullivan County. It replaces what environmentalists say was a more restrictive site-specific permit.

“It really just showed hypocrisy in that they aren't really listening to their constituents in their community by issuing one of these permits during that process,” said Marisa Frazier, conservation program coordinator of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Missouri DNR officials said the department is working within state laws and the permit change at the South Meadows operation does nothing to weaken regulation.

‘Forfeiting its authority’

Environmental groups argue that site-specific permits for larger operations provide better regulation because they can be modified to fit the types of animals at the facility, as well as its location.

Last year, Smithfield requested a change from site-specific to general permits for 10 out of its 11 facilities in Missouri and then withdrew all of them after public backlash — except the request for South Meadows in Sullivan County.

In March, one of Smithfield’s sites was fined $18,000 for spilling 300,000 gallons of waste into nearby streams. South Meadows in particular is estimated to have spilled 64,505 gallons of waste from 1991 to 2021, according to an analysis of DNR records by the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

Ashlen Busick, a farmer and regional representative of the organization, said grouping the large South Meadow facility under a general permit with significantly smaller operations is alarming.

“One, that means that more facilities will follow suit,” she said, “and two, DNR is forfeiting its authority to exercise more oversight over the worst polluters in the state.”

Missouri DNR officials say the department was required by state law to issue the general permit to the South Meadows operation within 45 days of the application, as long as Smithfield’s documentation and permit conditions satisfied the application requirements.

“Once they had answered all of the outstanding questions that we had in this permit adequately and successfully, I didn't have any reason to deny that permit,” said Heather Peters, the watershed protection program chief who reviewed and approved the application.

Peters also said that site-specific permits are not less restrictive than general permits, as neither permit allows animal waste to be discharged into local waters. The permit change also has to satisfy state and federal “anti-backsliding” requirements, meaning that South Meadows’ general permit had to be at least as stringent as the site-specific one.

“There's nothing that prohibits their facility from applying for a general permit,” Peters said. “So because they're eligible, because it's not prohibited, because they met all the requirements and because the new permit is as stringent as the old permit, we had to issue the permit.”

Smithfield did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Small improvements’

In the new master general permit for CAFOs, environmental advocates hope to see better tracking of exported waste, monitoring of pharmaceutical chemicals in water bodies near CAFOs and more inspections and transparency.

The drafts put forward by DNR for its new master general permits go part of the way, environmentalists say by including, for instance, more tracking for wastewater from products used to clean equipment.

“While the Department of Natural Resources did make small improvements to their permits and we are thankful for that, there are so many pieces of it that are still entirely inadequate,” Frazier said.

Busick, who grew up near a CAFO and recalls having to go inside because of “hog fog,” acknowledged DNR is somewhat limited by state laws.

“We're happy to see the DNR taking our suggestions in some areas,” she said. “It’s also becoming clear to us where they have been bound by statute and bound by regulation and a lot of that has been influenced by the ag industry lobby writing the rules and indicating what state agencies can actually require of these facilities.”

Several debates around bills in recent years in the Missouri Legislature have limited what DNR can regulate when it comes to CAFOs; the most recent being Senate Bill 391which prohibited counties from enacting rules on CAFOs that were stricter than those of the state.

According to Peters, these debates have made it clear that DNR cannot regulate smaller agricultural facilities. For instance, the department cannot regulate waste after it has been exported to another farm, as environmentalists and rural advocates have asked. It will however require CAFOs to report where that waste has been exported to and make the information publicly accessible.

“We have responded to every comment that we have gotten. Sometimes it's simply to explain why we don't have that authority,” Peters said. “And other ones we have made some substantial changes to the permit to make it more responsive to the comments that we received.”

DNR is reviewing the latest draft of the master general permits and put out another for industry representatives in early August. A public comment period and a 90-day review by the Environmental Protection Agency will occur simultaneously later in the year. Those interested can sign up for email updates on the process.

DNR anticipates that it will issue the new permits in January and February 2023. CAFOs, including South Meadows, will have to reapply.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Smithfield was fined $118,000 for spilling waste into nearby streams. The fine was, in fact, $18,000.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member. Follow Eva on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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