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Missouri Outlaws Rural Residents' Last Line of Protection Against CAFOs

Under the new law, local standards regulating industrial-scale livestock operations cannot be stricter than any of those set by the state.
Chickens at a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)

Most CAFOs have chickens, pigs, or cows.

Missouri's legislature voted this week to prevent counties from passing more stringent laws regulating concentrated animal feeding operations, many of which pose an environmental and public-health risk to their neighbors.

The bill's sponsors say the law will benefit the state's agriculture industry, but critics argue the blanket standard will prevent rural communities from using one of the few legislative levers they have left to protect their health and property. Subject to little federal oversight, CAFOs have been allowed to pollute air and water in states like Missouri, lowering property values and harming children's health.

The State House passed the bill on a party line vote on Tuesday, despite opposition from conservation groups and Democrats. "Why are we so uncomfortable with letting local people decide what happens in their communities?" Democratic Representative Tracy McCreery told the Columbia Missourian.

Republican Governor Mike Parson, who is expected to sign the bill soon, called the vote a win for farming and ranching families, adding that the bill "ensures we keep more food production right here in Missouri, strengthening our No. 1 industry—agriculture."

So far this year, eight states have already considered strengthening protections for large animal feeding operations. Missouri's law would be another victory for industrial agriculture: According to local reports, 20 counties currently have regulations on CAFOs. Under the new law, these standards cannot be stricter than any of those set by the state Natural Resources and Health and Senior Services departments, the Fulton Sun reports.

Critics of the law say there's a real need for these local ordinances, since the federal government and states have both failed to adequately regulate CAFOs. Most states don't treat CAFOs as a point-source polluter, and some don't even regulate them as non-point sources, meaning they aren't required to have permits under the Clean Water Act, according to Loka Ashwood, an environmental and rural sociologist at Auburn University. "Even if you ask individual departments of resource or state [environmental protection agencies], in a lot of cases these states are not going to even have a comprehensive list of where CAFOS are," Ashwood says. "You basically have to look at Google Earth to try spot where the industrial-scale facilities are."

According to Ashwood's analysis, about two-thirds of state right-to-farm laws protect CAFOs as long as they are not polluting, but few states have firm definitions for what that pollution entails. As a result, a variety of environmental hazards are allowed to go unregulated. "A lot of large-scale feeding operations are effectively operating outside of any environmental law," she says.

In other states, counties are allowed to use their zoning power to regulate CAFOs, such as defining buffers between the operation and schools or homes. But according to a 2016 analysis of Indiana counties' standards, these ordinances vary widely and are not easily accessible: Some protect water use, but others protect the CAFOs themselves from encroaching development.

Under the new law, Missouri can do neither. As I've previously reported, rural residents who want to push back on CAFOs have resorted to suing the meat processing companies in nuisance lawsuits—but this option, too, has come under fire. With the support of state farm bureaus, more states are expanding laws that restrict who can sue a CAFO, and for how much.