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Southwest Missouri river’s listing as polluted may set up fight over meatpacker permit

An undated photo of the Pomme de Terre River, which runs through Webster, Greene, Dallas, Polk and Hickory counties. A meat packing company near Pleasant Hope wants a permit to discharge its wastewater into the river, which is already proposed for the impaired waters list. (Shannon Henry photo via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
An undated photo of the Pomme de Terre River, which runs through Webster, Greene, Dallas, Polk and Hickory counties. A meat packing company near Pleasant Hope wants a permit to discharge its wastewater into the river, which is already proposed for the impaired waters list. (Shannon Henry photo via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Pomme de Terre River’s status as an impaired waterway is poised to set up a fight between environmentalists and a meatpacking plant in Southwest Missouri.

Missouri Prime Beef Packers has requested permission from the state to discharge treated wastewater from its facility near Pleasant Hope directly into the river. It currently applies the water to surrounding land as fertilizer.

But since then, the Pomme de Terre has been found to have high levels of E. coli bacteria, landing it on a list of impaired waterways. To restore the water quality, state regulators will have to cap the amount of pollution allowed to enter the waterway.

Until that happens, Ethan Thompson, an attorney representing environmental groups critical of the request, argued allowing a new discharge into the river could violate the Clean Water Act.

“The (Missouri Department of Natural Resources) should follow the law and either wait…before authorizing an additional discharge to the watershed or deny the discharge request altogether,” Thompson, an attorney for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, wrote in a letter to the state.

But the Missouri Department of Natural Resources argues it can approve the discharge.

“They’re going to be required under the permit to disinfect, so they won’t be causing or contributing to that impairment, so…they can proceed on parallel paths,” John Hoke, director of the state agency’s water protection program, said in an interview.

The situation mirrors countless other disputes between animal agriculture facilities and rural neighbors or environmentalists. Preventing facilities, such as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, from moving in has gotten harder for rural communities as the state legislature has restricted cities and counties’ ability to set their own rules.

The Pomme de Terre River, which winds through the Ozark region of southwest Missouri, provides clear, spring-fed water for canoeing, swimming and fishing, making it a popular destination. It was designated an impaired waterway in recent years but had improved and been removed from the list.

Missouri regulators proposed and the Environmental Protection Agency approved it for the list again this summer.

The request from Missouri Prime Beef Packers would mean wastewater from the facility’s processing of 3,500 cattle per week would flow into the river. The water would first be treated using microorganisms, a technology Thompson raised concerns about in his letter.

So far, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has conducted a “water quality and anti-degradation” to set limits on how much pollution the company can discharge while avoiding harm to the river.

It determined the company can sufficiently treat the wastewater with microbe technology called “iLeaf,” but if it doesn’t work, the review says, the state can require the company to switch to another treatment option.

The review took place before the Pomme de Terre was declared an impaired waterway. But Hoke said the additional discharge is not expected to worsen the water quality because the water will be treated.

The Pomme de Terre was found in 2019 to have an average of more than 200 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The limit is 126, triggering its listing as impaired.

At that level, fewer than one person per 1,000 is likely to get a gastrointestinal illness, Hoke said.

E. coli data from 2020 is incomplete, Hoke said, because of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on sample collection. The department has yet to receive 2021 and 2022 data, which must go through a quality review process from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Pomme de Terre Lake, which is fed by the river of the same name, is also on the impaired waters because of high levels of chlorophyll-a. Presence of the chemical indicates a body of water is receiving too much phosphorus and nitrogen, which can lead to harmful algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water and kill fish. Some blooms can lead to toxins and bacteria that can make people sick.

Runoff from farms is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are found in animal waste. Untreated, the water from the meatpacking facility may also contain those chemicals.

Pomme de Terre Lake does not yet have pollution limits set to bring its chlorophyll-a levels down. The state’s anti-degradation review says the meatpacking facility’s permit could be adjusted if necessary to comply with a limit.

Hoke said the Department of Natural Resources was preparing to release a permit for the facility for public comment. After that, the agency will host a public meeting in the area, likely in September or October, Hoke said.

Missouri Prime Beef Packers did not respond to requests for comment.