Greene County Reviewing Rules On Farm Runoff As New Law Curtails Local Control

Jul 10, 2019

Credit KSMU News

A new state law in Missouri has drawn battle lines between state and local government.  At issue is:  who has the final say in what large farms can and cannot do? 

Bill SB391, which will become law on August 28th, 2019, restricts how much control county governments have when it comes to industrial farms known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. Essentially, county governments can no longer enforce stricter measures than the state’s rules when it comes to regulating these farms.

Governor Mike Parson signed the bill into law, saying it’s a big economic win for Missouri agriculture, the state’s number one industry.

But a host of organizations and activists have vowed to fight it.

One advocacy group, Missouri Farm Action, describes the law as “the biggest giveaway of Missouri communities’ rights in recent memory.”

Greene County Commissioner Howard Bengsch said he is still reviewing the new law and has some concerns.

Credit KSMU File photo

“Any time that our powers are usurped or taken away from us, that is a concern because we’re the ones who have to respond to local residents,” Bengsch told KSMU.

Bengsch said when the issue of livestock confinement came up in 2008, the county worked with the local agricultural community to create new regulations, which have been in place ever since.

Bengsch said staff members are combing through the new law to see if there are other areas of Greene County that it may affect.

Jake Davis is the National Policy Director for Family Farm Action, a group that advocates for smaller farms and rural communities.

He says he’s worried for the counties that already found ways to mitigate runoff from large industrial farms, saying they will likely have to change their policies.

“We’re just really concerned that our state legislator would be interested, and the governor would be interested in taking away that power from local communities,” Davis said.

Republicans state lawmakers sponsored the bill, and it was signed by a Republican governor—even though Republicans have traditionally said they champion local control.

In addition to the ideological tension of local versus state control, there’s an environmental concern.

According to Davis, many counties already put protections in place for waterways and wells, tailoring their local legislation to fit the needs of their communities. He feels lawmakers are catering to the lobbying of agricultural corporations. 

Some counties already have rules about runoff from large farms, but those will have to change soon if they are stricter than the state’s.

Davis cautions that an increase in E. coli could be a major concern. Other problems would include more bacteria, as well as higher concentrations of nutrients like phosphorus, which could create major algae blooms.

“Missouri is going to continue to see more of that as well if we continue to build these major industrial animal operations close to our streams and lakes and those sorts of things,” Davis said.

Some environmentalists fear this could hinder local governments from protecting the waterways and other natural features they know best. Water quality activist and former president of Drury University Todd Parnell says it’s not only pollution the community should be concerned about.

“This is an economic development issue in the Ozarks. So much of our economy is built around water. And if you foul Table Rock Lake, who knows how many millions or billions of dollars are at risk in that case,” Parnell said.

Parnell adds that the Ozarks region has already dealt with a similar situation. The Buffalo River experienced major algae blooms in the early 2000s due to industrial farm runoffs, and that it took a lot of legislation to turn the problem around, he said. He says this could also depreciate property values.

Tiffany Frey, the outgoing Executive Director of the James River Basin Partnership, says the new law might get rid of the county ordinances that protected private wells and properties from CAFO runoff and pollution.

“So if you’ve chosen where to live, and you’ve specifically chosen a place that is protected from those things, that option is no longer yours,” Frey said.

Parson and the bill's supporters say in addition to the economic boost this new law could bring to the agricultural industry, it could also lead to more companies investing in rural Missouri.

To read the full text of the the new law, click here.