A proposed bill in the Missouri Senate would not allow counties to pass CAFO regulations that are more strict than state rules. The Cooper County Public Health Center board passed one last year.

JEFFERSON CITY — There’s no winning when a county considers regulating confined animal feeding operations, Cooper County Commissioner Don Baragary told the Missouri Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee on Tuesday.

A group of lawmakers in Jefferson City want to roll back county-level regulations, arguing the large operations, commonly called CAFOs, are regulated enough by state and federal governments and local rules are bad for business.

Residents near the site of a proposed hog operation in southern Cooper County sought county-level health regulations last year, because they feared the Missouri Department of Natural Resources wasn’t doing enough to control waste and odor.

The Cooper County Commission decided not to pass regulations but the Cooper County Public Health Center Board did. Both are facing lawsuits over their decisions, and a court order has stopped enforcement of the health board's rules.

“In our case, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario,” Baragary said.

Bargary spoke during a hearing on a bill filed by Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, that would keep county commissions and health boards from adopting regulations on CAFOs that are more restrictive than state law.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill after the Tuesday evening hearing, but several members of the panel, which Bernskoetter chairs, expressed support.

County-level health regulations have been a popular tool for Missouri communities to put extra restrictions on the large animal farms, called CAFOs. Cooper, Pettis and Howard counties are among the 20 Missouri counties with their own CAFO health regulations, according to MU Extension.

The bill will promote jobs, economic development and food security, Bernskoetter said during the crowded hearing.

The bill faces a long road to passage. The hearing was the first step; the committee must vote and the bill must find time for debate on the Senate floor before moving to the House.

Fred Williams lives in southern Cooper County near the proposed site of the Tipton East CAFO. Williams and his mother, Susan, have been leading the opposition to Tipton East by challenging its operating permit, using testimony of an expert who said the soil and geology of the area makes Tipton East a high risk for polluting groundwater.

Groundwater is the only water available in the rural area of southern Cooper County. There’s no public water supply, so everyone draws their drinking water from wells. The Department of Natural Resources doesn’t have any teeth to protect them, Williams said in an interview.

He said the expansion of the Valley Oaks cattle operation in Lone Jack is a perfect example. After Valley Oaks expanded to 1,900-head of cattle, the Administrative Hearing Commission ordered the CAFO to stop expanding and revert to 999-head.

“(Valley Oaks) said, ‘Stop us,’ and they continued to bring in more and more cattle in their facility,” Williams said. “DNR had no teeth, no way to stop them.”

Local governments need to be in control of their own counties, Williams said.

“How can this one senator and this committee go in and strip away what 20 other counties have already set in place?” Williams questioned. “They’re overreaching.”

Bernskoetter argued his bill doesn’t restrict local control.

“It simply says an ordinance can not be more stringent or inconsistent with existing laws and regulations,” he said.

CAFOs are a big investment, and allowing local regulations increases the risk, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said in an interview.

County-level CAFO regulations a generally proposed after someone applies for an operating permit to establish a CAFO, Hurst said. That makes them a referendum on the individual operation instead of a regulation of CAFOs in general, he said.

Brian Kliethermes, whose family operates a permitted hog CAFO near Bunceton, is one of the landowners suing over the Cooper County regulation. He spoke in favor of the bill. His family supports themselves through livestock production, and it’s the best way for young people to get into farming, he said. A patchwork of county-level regulations will make it harder for the next generation to get into livestock production, he said.

Bernskoetter agreed that county regulations were limiting opportunities for the next generation of farmers.

“We need the next generation or we’ll be importing more and more of our food,” he said.

County regulations are bad public policy, because county commissions don’t have the professional expertise or get the scientific input needed to make effective regulations, Hurst said. CAFOs should be regulated at the state level so the rules are the same for everyone and the regulations are based on the best knowledge available to the legislature and Department of Natural Resources, he said.

To Williams, having county regulations makes more sense. What works for Jackson County isn’t what works for Cooper County.

“Why would they think they can regulate the entire state and every county the exact same way?” Williams questioned.

Cooper County conundrum

The Cooper County Public Health Center Board passed a regulation in August that would require landowners who apply manure from Class I CAFOs to formulate a nutrient management plan. Landowners would also be required to inject manure into the soil, rather than surface spraying.

“The health department’s done the research, they’ve done the background work on MRSA and all the diseases and the pollution and the effect it can have on the community,” Williams said. “They’ve had MU Extension come in and talk. They’ve had doctors, environmentalists, and even people from the CAFOs come in and talk to them.”

That wouldn’t be allowed under Bernskoetter’s bill. Missouri regulations only require nutrient management plans from CAFO operators, not everyone who receives manure from an operation.

“There’s no guidelines that forces them to follow nutrient management plans,” Williams said of state law. “If it’s calling for a severe downpour of rain, they can put on that waste any time they want.”

A judge prevented the Cooper County Health Board from enforcing its regulation, placing an injunction until a group of 101 area landowners’ lawsuit is heard in court. The plaintiffs argue the rule makes an arbitrary distinction between litter and manure from a Class I CAFO and litter and manure from other farms.

They also argue the health board did not have the authority to pass the regulation, because the board lacked substantial evidence that it would improve public health and prevent the spread of disease in the county.

County CAFO ordinances have come under legal scrutiny in other parts of the state as well. A judge threw out an Andrew County ordinance in 2017 because it was imposed by the county health board rather than the county commission because state law only gives county health boards the power to pass regulations.

Scotland County paid out $192,118 to a farmer and $102,427.95 for its own legal fees when it was found to have improperly denied a permit to a CAFO, according to Ashley McCarty, executive director of Missouri Farmers Care and chair of the Missouri Clean Water Commission.

The bill would settle the dispute between the The Cooper County Commission and the health board, Baragary said during his testimony.

“We currently have local out-of-control,” Baragary said.