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Move to remake Missouri's water commission draws ire and concern

Move to remake Missouri's water commission draws ire and concern

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Pig farms

In this July 18, 2007 file photo, hogs are shown in a pen at a Central Ohio farm. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri’s next governor will have the power to remake a commission that protects the state’s water quality.

And that has environmental groups and others fearful for the future of Missouri's rivers.

On Wednesday, the Republican-led Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill giving farming and mining interests a bigger say in the state’s water policies.

The change, which was championed by groups like the Missouri Farm Bureau, would limit the number of members of the public on the commission to no more than four, while at least two members would have to come from the agriculture and mining industries.

In short, opponents argued, it would allow for a corporate takeover of a commission that has the ability to approve or deny construction permits for facilities that have the potential to damage Missouri waterways.

Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, called the change an “incredible knee jerk reaction” to an earlier decision by the commission to deny a permit to a large-scale hog farming operation in Grundy County.

In denying that permit, board members said the company seeking to build the facility failed to prove it had the assets to pay for the clean-up of any potential manure spills.

Smith said the panel could become dominated by members representing industries that pollute, resulting in a downgrade of the state’s waterways.

“At least there should be a reasonable balance,” Smith said.

Todd Parnell, the most senior member of the commission, also is upset with the override.

“I’m disappointed and I’m angry,” the Springfield resident said. “It’s a travesty to take away citizen representation as the foundation for the Clean Water Commission.”

Parnell, the former president of Drury University who has served on the board for a decade, said there are a number of large-scale farm projects in the commission’s pipeline that could draw scrutiny from the board, including a hog operation in Calloway County near Fulton.

“The water of our state is unique and precious and it belongs to the citizens and not corporations or agricultural or mining interests. It’s a legacy and a heritage,” Parnell said.

The change was among a number of victories for agricultural interests during the spring legislative session and the veto session.

In addition to the Clean Water Commission, the GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate approved legislation that will close some types of farm data from the state’s open record laws. State agencies will be required to keep information collected for voluntary agricultural programs confidential.

They also created a state income tax deduction for disaster payments to farmers and ranchers and exempted livestock owners from having to pay for damage caused by wandering cattle and horses unless the owner is negligent.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said the organization was thankful for legislator’s efforts.

“Every one of these bills will benefit the farmers and ranchers of this state. They will make a positive difference on their farms. We appreciate the Missouri General Assembly for overriding the vetoes of bills important to Missouri agriculture,” Hurst said in a statement.

Or as Smith put it, “It certainly was a big year for Big Ag.”

In defending the Clean Water Commission legislation, Rep. Tim Remole said the public members don’t have the expertise to make good decisions regarding the effects of industry on the state’s waterways.

“This has resulted in poor public policy,” said Remole, who sponsored House Bill 1713. “It has hurt the economy of Missouri.”

But Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, said the legislation was designed to punish the commission for its decision in the Grundy County case. She said there was never any public hearing of the proposed change, shutting out the public from commenting on whether the public should be shut out of having a say on the state’s water resources.

“This was not properly vetted. It’s never been publically heard. This process is very disrespectful to democracy,” McCreery said.

The override moved through the Senate with no discussion.

Unless Nixon moves to put his stamp on the board before he leaves office in January, the next governor will have the ability to replace all members of the commission.

Democratic candidate for governor Chris Koster, the current Missouri attorney general, has the endorsement of the Missouri Farm Bureau. The Republican candidate for governor is former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens.

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