By Titus Wu
JEFFERSON CITY — New components were added to a Missouri House bill that would exempt agricultural storm runoff and other agricultural practices from the Missouri clean water law. One is meant to appease the concerns of some Missouri citizens and environmentalists.
House Bill 1973, sponsored by Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, was discussed in a Senate committee hearing April 23 after previously being approved in the House.
The overall intent of the bill aims to ease the regulatory concerns of farmers. For instance, if a farmer were to spread manure over his or her land, and if rain were to fall and wash that potential waste into a stream, the bill would exempt that from the water law.
“You know, I farm, too,” said Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing agriculture and is also a member of many agricultural business organizations. “Erosion always takes place. If we could control the rain that we get, we wouldn’t have some of those problems.”
But many opponents have argued that the bill would limit the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ ability to stop pollution, as another component of the bill would require the department to enforce the law after damage is done instead of in situations where pollution could potentially occur.
“When landowners have due diligence with best management practices, if you have a buffer between your field and a receiving stream, then you’ve done your due diligence,” said Mary Culler, director of Stream Teams United, a Missouri group that advocates for clean water. “There are practices that our state taxpayers pay a lot of money to assist farmers and landowners” in implementing them.
A major change to the bill prior to approval in the House that brought up a lot of discussion in the hearing was meant to appease some concerns from the opposition, Wiemann said. In essence, the proposed exemption from the water law would not apply to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, notorious for the huge amounts of manure they produce and sometimes called factory farms.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some farms even produce more waste than U.S. cities. The report also documented numerous instances where CAFOs significantly affected water quality, air quality and other environmental factors, which could lead to unhealthy living situations for those nearby.
But some expressed concern over whether the CAFO addition to the bill had a loophole, especially regarding export-only CAFOs. Export-only operations handle the manure by “exporting” it out, and having it spread on fields owned by area farmers and not their own property.
“Basically, they transfer their liability when they give away their manure to surrounding properties,” said Brian Smith, an organizer from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.
That manure on the surrounding land would still have the potential to run off during a storm and pollute the waters. But according to the California Democrat, these CAFOs will not have any legal liability in such a situation, since it is not on their own property.
Two other notable changes altered some definitions in the bill. One would eliminate “temperature change” from what defines a water contaminant, to maintain consistency with the federal Clean Water Act, Wiemann said. An approved amendment to the bill would change the definition of “pollution” from anything harmful to “fish or other aquatic life” to just “fish.”
The change to the pollution definition greatly concerned Culler, who has also worked as a fisheries biologist.
“We have several dozen aquatic species in the state that are only found in the state of Missouri,” said Culler. “If there was a circumstance that damaged one of our species that wasn’t deemed a fish, would the state have the authority to do anything?”
The bill is similar to Senate Bill 823, sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan. Schatz’s bill does not include any of the changes made to the House bill, and it most recently has passed out of a Senate