Published June 23rd, 2021 at 12:24 PM
Eleven of Missouri’s largest concentrated animal feeding operations are working to reduce the state’s oversight of their hog facilities, despite a record of manure spills and clean water violations.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has 11 CAFOs seeking new state permits.
The facilities, dotted across northern Missouri, combined are capable of raising more than 880,000 hogs. Each facility consists of multiple farms with barns that have slatted floors to allow hog waste to fall through into a pit before being pumped out to a lagoon.
In recent years, there has been significant pushback toward some large Missouri CAFOs as state law and regulations have become more lax. Neighbors say they can have detrimental effects on rural communities from the smell of hog waste and spills that can pollute waterways.
And many of the Smithfield facilities have a long history of spills.
“The Smithfield operations in the three decades of its history is the worst agricultural polluter in Missouri history, period,” said Scott Dye, a research and reports specialist for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, adding that he had “never seen an outfit like this.”
Smithfield is seeking to change the state’s oversight in two ways.
First, it installed scrapers in its barns at several facilities to remove manure without flushing the facility with water, which means the Missouri Department of Natural Resources would only inspect the facilities once every year rather than every quarter.
Second, the company applied with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for general operating permits rather than site specific ones for 11 CAFOs, which environmental groups say could result in more lax state oversight. All 11 CAFOs are Class 1A, Missouri’s largest designation, which are allowed more than 17,500 swine over 55 pounds or 70,000 swine under 55 pounds — or some combination.
Only 18 of the state’s more than 500 CAFOs are Class 1A facilities, and right now, all are governed by site specific permits.
“These are all Class 1A facilities … They have tens of thousands of animals as it is. Many of them have violations,” said Sophie Watterson, a rural justice organizer for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
“We feel like these facilities, all CAFOs, have potential to cause pollution to our waters, and we need to regulate them as strictly as possible,” she said.
The public comment period for most of the applications is now closed. But DNR will accept comments on one facility — Somerset Farm in Mercer County — through Wednesday at 5 p.m. Then DNR will review the comments on the application before rendering a decision.
Heather Peters, the industrial permitting unit chief in DNR’s water protection program operating permit section, said she could not put a timeframe on that decision. Peters had not yet read all of the myriad comments filed on Monday, but said on Tuesday the groups that commented had “spent a lot of time and consideration” on their filings.
She said DNR wanted to put a lot of time into considering those comments.
“I think they’ve raised some really good questions that we need to take a look at,” Peters said.
Smithfield did not provide a statement or interview on Tuesday.
Missouri’s DNR has not yet fulfilled a Sunshine Law request from The Missouri Independent for all the public comments submitted during that window.
Just a few months ago, Smithfield’s Somerset Farm spilled an estimated 350,000 gallons of hog manure and wastewater because an employee left a valve on, draining the lagoon and polluting between 12 and 15 miles of nearby creeks and tributaries, according to DNR records.
In some places sampled by DNR inspectors, ammonia in the water was 15, 20 or even 30 times the safe limit for fish and wildlife.
Photos included in an inspection report of the facility show water that’s nearly black, and the inspector reported a strong swine stench.
DNR investigators referred the issue to their water quality enforcement office, something environmental groups say is rare for the agency, which prefers to resolve issues through cooperating with businesses rather than more heavy-handed enforcement.
As DNR accepted public comments on Somerset’s request for a general operating permit, some groups questioned whether the department could grant it given the violation.
“At this point in time, we are reviewing that,” Peters said. “We are going to review the enforcement and inspection aspects of these facilities as we review and determine what our permit decision will be.”
But Somerset is far from the only Smithfield facility to run afoul of DNR’s rules in recent years.
In 2015, the company’s Terre Haute farm had multiple spills affecting neighboring property and was issued two letters of warning. And in 2016, the farm received another warning after an inspector observed blood trickling from a truck meant to haul off dead hogs and other troubling findings.
“I observed trash in each lagoon, which was primarily made up of semen tubes, aerosol cans, and hog markers … I observed at least 25 dead pigs in the lagoon at Site #1 and at least 20 in the lagoon at Site #3,” an inspection report about the incident says.
In the last 10 years, seven of the 11 CAFOs have been issued either a letter of warning or notice of violation, according to DNR’s online database.
Across all the farms, it’s not uncommon for plumbing lines meant to carry hog manure and wastewater from the bottom of barns into the lagoon to get clogged, resulting in spills that are then collected in a backup or “secondary” containment.
Watterson said it’s important to have those backups but that even spills that are contained are indicative of the facilities’ waste management practices.
With Smithfield’s installation of barn scrapers to allow it to only be inspected once a year, environmental groups are fearful potential violations won’t be caught. The inspection frequency, though, is laid out in state statute, not decided through the permitting process. Even so, Peters said staff would consider it as it reviews the applications.
Watterson said for DNR to allow Smithfield to switch to general permits, which make up the vast majority of Missouri CAFOs, would set a precedent.
“It does set a standard that even the largest operators, even those who have discharges reported, don’t need to comply with the highest level of regulation,” she said.
In written comments, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) said general permits don’t reflect specific details of the facilities they cover and “will not adequately protect surrounding water bodies from unregulated discharges.”
“MCE urges DNR and (the Clean Water Commission) to protect Missouri’s water quality by regulating CAFOs — especially Class IA facilities such as these — under the most stringent permits available and to deny these applications for General NPDES permits.”
Both MCE and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project have asked DNR to hold public hearings on the permits and extend the public comment period. The 11 permits posted online, each with between 60 and 90 pages of information, were available for public comment for just over two weeks.
That’s not enough time for someone who lives near a facility to decipher the long, complex technical documents and prepare comments, Watterson said.
And because Smithfield isn’t expanding or modifying the facilities, there was no requirement that neighbors be notified of the change. Socially Responsible Agriculture Project said in its comments there wasn’t enough public awareness for DNR to grant the permits.
“Neighbors and community members need to know how this change will affect their ability to participate in permit renewals from this point forward,” the group said, “and what they can expect from the Department in terms of inspections, annual reports, and responses to spills.”
Allison Kite is a data reporter with a focus on the environment and agriculture. This story first appeared on the Missouri Independent, a nonprofit news operations covering Missouri state government and politics as part of States Newsroom.