The Cooper County Health Board on Tuesday unanimously passed a new regulation on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and affirmed its commitment to defending the rules in court after a statewide ban on county-level agricultural regulations takes effect at the end of the month.

Cooper County Health Department Administrator Melanie Hutton said that every resident in Cooper County should have the right to clean air and water, which the regulation aims to secure. It includes air quality standards and restricts what types of soil and geology large manure storage tanks can be built, none of which is regulated by the state, Hutton said.

A new state law set to take effect Aug. 28 prohibits county-level agricultural regulations, including those relating to CAFOs. The health board believes its regulation should be allowed to stand, because the law doesn’t explicitly apply to already-existing regulations, and it plans to defend its rules in an inevitable lawsuit, according to its attorney, Stephen Jeffery, who represents several other health boards and groups of neighbors pushing back on CAFOs around the state.

Air quality

The new regulation, made available on Thursday, includes monitoring air quality around CAFOs and land where manure generated by those operations is spread as fertilizer. 

The air quality rules focus on ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter. If the health department receives a complaint about a specific property, it will measure the levels of those pollutants spreading beyond the property line to make sure they don’t exceed the department’s standards. 

The department’s standards for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are the same as those of the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s. They are set so the pollutants wouldn’t cause health problems for people who breathe them in for fewer than two weeks. The standards for particulate matter are the same as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national air quality standards.

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that smells like rotten eggs. It comes from a range of sources, including volcanoes, stagnant water, wastewater treatment plants and fermenting manure like animal waste kept in a storage pit, according to the CDC. The gas causes a range of health effects, from rashes and difficulty breathing at low levels, to unconsciousness or death at extremely high levels, according to the CDC.

Ammonia is a chemical formed by the breakdown of plants, animals and manure, and it’s widely used as a fertilizer. Breathing high levels of ammonia can cause irritation, and even burning and lung damage, according to the CDC.

Hog barns have large fans to remove deadly ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, Hutton said. Farm workers and cattle have died around manure pits because of those gases, she said. In recent years, farm workers have died around manure pits in the U.S., including in Iowa, Wisconsin and Idaho, according to local news reports.

Particulate matter is microscopic debris like dirt, dust and smoke. They’re small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs and can cause breathing and heart problems, according to the EPA. Especially around waste pits, some of those particles can be made up of feces, Hutton said.

Ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and feces particles all contribute to the unpleasant smell associated with animal waste, but the smell isn’t just a nuisance, she said. People will have different reactions to the fumes. Some people might not see an immediate reaction, but they could after breathing in the dangerous chemicals for years, she said. 

“Some people will say, ‘Well, I’ve lived around it all my life and I’m just fine.’ But that’s like smoking,” Hutton said. “Some people can smoke for years, other people, just secondhand smoke gives them cancer.”

Water quality

The new regulation also limits where underground manure storage structures can be built, banning them on karst formations and where soil has severe potential to shrink and swell, as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil surveys. 

Those rules directly address some of the concerns expressed by people living near the proposed site of the Tipton East hog CAFO near Clarksburg. Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs, a group of neighbors who are concerned with the effects the operation of almost 8,000 pigs, mainly sows, will have on their air and water quality.

Expert testimony from geohydrologist Thomas Aley was the centerpiece of the groups appeal to have the state’s Clean Water Commission revoke Tipton East’s permit. The soil on the Tipton East site has a high potential to shrink when it’s dry and swell when it’s wet, and could fracture the concrete underground storage tanks holding millions of gallons of hog waste before it would be spread on nearby cropland as fertilizer, Aley testified. 

Sinkholes and underground springs and channels characteristic of the karst topography of the site makes it likely an underground manure spill could contaminate drinking water wells in the rural area with no public water supply, he testified.

The Clean Water Commission voted 4-1 in January to uphold the Tipton East permit with Commissioner Stan Coday saying the soil conditions aren’t part of the state regulations the commission uses to decide which permits to issue.

The new health board regulation doesn’t apply to CAFOs in the county that are already permitted and operational, but Tipton East hasn’t been built yet, so it will have to meet the requirements of the rule, Hutton said.

The regulation also adds requirements for sites on soil with moderate shrink-swell potential. CAFOs would be allowed on those soils as long as the operator had the Missouri Geological Survey and the Cooper County Health Department review and approve its plans for underground manure storage tanks.

Courts to decide if county regulations will stand

The health board intends to defend it in an inevitable lawsuit over a controversial law passed by the Missouri General Assembly in May, Jeffery said. The law bans any county-level regulations on agriculture in order to protect the animal agriculture industry. Opponents say the law takes away local control to regulate CAFOs and will open the door for the operations to overwhelm Missouri’s air and water with animal waste.

The sides also disagree on whether the law will wipe out existing county-level CAFO regulations, which are in effect in 20 counties, including Cooper, Howard and Pettis. Supporters like the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Cole County, say the law will make those regulations invalid. Jeffery said the law is not retroactive, and those existing rules will stand.

That question will likely be decided in court. While Jeffery said he isn’t aware of any such lawsuits yet, the board unanimously voted to defend its new regulation if one is filed. 

The health board has been involved in a legal battle since it passed its first CAFO regulation last year. A group of area landowners sued the board last fall, claiming it didn’t have the authority to pass the regulation, and that it violated parts of Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The board rescinded that regulation in June. Hutton said the board has already been threatened with a lawsuit over the new regulation.

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com