ATLANTA, Mo. — A small environmental disaster unfolded last year in a rural corner of northern Missouri, when pig manure overwhelmed lagoons that had been managed by a financially troubled farming company. Wastewater and industrial litter poured into nearby creeks, contaminating them.
The spills, which were extensive, garnered no headlines. But an environmental specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources investigated and issued notices of violations, finding that two facilities in Macon and Shelby counties were in “significant non-compliance” with the state’s Clean Water Law. The DNR has yet to take any action in either case, and the hogs that were on the properties are now sold.
Though the state didn’t estimate how much waste the two farms, operated by Chinn Thrasher & Thrasher Farm Partnership, sent into the environment, the notices of violation, which include photos of the scenes of the spills, and other records filed in a Macon County Circuit Court foreclosure case, document suspicions the discharges were not a one-time event.
Environmental watchdogs say the spills, and the prior lack of oversight by DNR, spotlight the state’s hands-off approach to smaller concentrated animal feeding operations. Classified as Class II CAFOs, these facilities house as many as 2,499 swine over 55 pounds, or as many as 9,999 under that weight.
“There’s just this sort of Wild West of Class II operations, that they can do anything they want and nobody knows about them unless they get caught,” said Tim Gibbons, spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, an organization made up of family farmers and other members and donors that advocate against large factory farms.
The gap in DNR regulations is especially relevant, Gibbons said, because of a 2019 law Gov. Mike Parson signed that bars counties from enacting health and safety rules for mega farms that are stricter than state rules. Environmental and civic groups say the state’s rules lack protections, such as limiting hazardous emissions when a CAFO operates near a residence, church or school.
Brian Quinn, spokesman for DNR’s Environmental Quality Division, said Class II CAFOs are “permit exempt” except in rare instances when a facility has had past compliance issues and/or discharges. Quinn said permitted Class II facilities are typically inspected once every five years.
Permit-exempt Class II CAFOs “are not tracked, logged or routinely inspected. However, any community concerns we receive about these sites are promptly investigated,” he said.
Quinn said both enforcement cases are still pending and noted “the animals were removed from the site and cleanup has initiated.”
He also said enforcement “can be complicated by factors outside” the state’s control, such as a company declaring bankruptcy.
‘Fly all to hell’
At Chinn Thrasher & Thrasher, owner Dwayne Thrasher had problems in addition to the one accumulating in his lagoons.
The Macon-Atlanta State Bank had made a loan to Thrasher for a portion of his sows, but the bank had foreclosed on the loan. A court-appointed receiver, Brent King, had taken over the operation of both sites on April 13, 2020, per a court order, according to DNR and court records.
King and Thrasher clashed many times in the weeks and months after the bank initiated foreclosure.
“This receiver really caused a lot of problems,” Thrasher said. “He just didn’t know what he was doing. I mean, he’s a city guy that come out here to play farmer and he just let everything fly all to hell.”
King’s version of events is laid out in numerous receiver’s reports filed in court throughout the spring and summer of 2020.
From the time the bank took over, Thrasher tried to deceive King, the receiver wrote in his first report, covering April 13 to May 13.
“All sows and pigs on the Dwayne Thrasher farms are subject to the liens of Macon-Atlanta State Bank,” King wrote.
Despite that, King wrote that he found out on April 16 that the week prior, Thrasher had transported 254 sows to the Heinhold hog buying station in Monroe City in what King described as an “unapproved sale.”
He said Thrasher requested Heinhold make out payment to his mother, Kathy Stidham, something Heinhold told the receiver Thrasher had never requested, the report said.
Heinhold paid Stidham $29,297 and the money was deposited at the Community State Bank of Clarence, Missouri, not the Thrasher farm checking account at Macon-Atlanta State Bank.
King wrote to Thrasher’s attorney that the bank was claiming a lien on the cash generated by the unapproved sale.
“Those were not the bank’s sows,” Thrasher said. “Of course, if you listen to his (King’s) side of the story, we were in there trying to sell off collateral of the bank’s. But that was not the case.”
After another conflict in June involving the sale of a tractor, King wrote in one entry: “The only thing that is clear in the tractor sale story is that the words of Dwayne Thrasher are unreliable.”
‘When it blows’
The Clear Creek Farm in Macon County, formerly known as the Elmer Sow Complex or Cooper Pork Farm under a previous owner, had been the subject of a state permit, which was terminated at Thrasher’s request in 2014, according to the state inspection report.
The permit had been necessary because of past “environmental issues,” the report said, but Thrasher wanted to terminate the permit because the complex wasn’t keeping enough animals to require such a permit.
The Shelby County facility, meanwhile, had never been inspected or investigated by the Northeast Regional Office, Water Pollution Compliance Unit, records show.
King, in his receiver’s report, said Thrasher told him in an email at about 7:30 a.m. on April 21 that “a swine manure lagoon was overflowing” at the Thrashers’ Macon County site, Clear Creek Farm.
Discharges from that property flow to a tributary of Huckleberry Creek, which eventually flows into the Chariton River.
King said he called the DNR’s emergency hotline at 7:55 a.m. to report it. By 10 a.m., he said he and the DNR “agreed upon a response plan” and that he was on his way to the site from Kansas City. King met the DNR environmental specialist and an employee of the Thrasher operation at the site at 1:30 p.m., he reported.
“The berm in the Northwest lagoon at Clear Creek had a deep, well defined trench cut approximately two-feet deep below the top of the levee,” King wrote. “This trench was eroded in a way that was consistent with long-term, slow, steady flow of manure.
“Swine manure was flowing through this trench and down the hillside through an extensively eroded set of trenches,” King wrote. “On the sloped area below the lagoon berm, the discharge had carved a network of deep channels into the face of the steep hillside. Syringes, needles and other swine production waste was littered all across the discharge zone and down into the creek.”
King reported inspecting the company’s second site, south of Clarence in Shelby County, after visiting the first site in Macon County.
Both of the Shelby County site’s lagoons were “critically high,” King said. “It was clear that the CTT lagoons had also been full and overflowing for a long time.”
Stephen Moss, the DNR inspector, made a similar note in his notice of violation.
“I observed evidence of previous lagoon overflows in three separate areas on the south side of the lagoon and one area on the east side of the lagoon,” Moss said of the Shelby County facility.
Discharge from the Shelby County site flows to a tributary of Otter Creek, which eventually flows to Mark Twain Lake.
Moss also said previous overflows “have likely occurred” at the Macon County site, and water samples the DNR took from tributaries of Huckleberry and Otter creeks, and from Huckleberry Creek itself, showed ammonia levels in violation of water quality standards.
Thrasher denied ever having a spill prior to the receiver taking over operation of his farm.
“No. No, we’ve never had a breach. Ever,” he said. Asked about the erosion noted in the receiver’s report and in photographs, Thrasher said the April 2020 events caused all the damage.
“When those dams blow, I mean, they blow out everything,” he said. “It looks like a bomb’s been dropped when all that water comes out of there. I mean, there’s no telling how many hundreds of thousands of gallons came.”
Thrasher blamed King for the overflows, saying that since the court-appointed receiver had taken over operation of the farms on April 13 that he wasn’t to blame.
“He was hands-off,” Thrasher said. “He never came to the sites and investigated or managed the employees. Everything was just turned loose for a week straight.
“Whenever he come on, he specifically told me and my family, you’re not in charge anymore, I’m taking over,” he said. “And so we backed off. And he didn’t tell the employees to keep pumping the lagoons.”
King said in his receiver’s report that he witnessed Thrasher “clearing the plugged, underground manure drain lines” at the Shelby County property when he arrived on April 21.
“The fact that Dwayne was there jetting the tubes disproves the fact that he had nothing to do with the farm after I was appointed on the 13th.”
“It wasn’t me,” Thrasher said. “I was hands-off when Brent took over.”
‘No reason to lie’
In Moss’ report, he said production manager Laurie Green told him on April 21 the Clear Creek Farm in Macon County had not land-applied manure — pumping it onto nearby fields as fertilizer — since she had started working there two years ago.
Green estimated at the time that there were 1,000 to 1,200 sows at the Macon County farm and 2,500 nursery pigs, Moss said.
When asked about Green’s statements to the investigator, Thrasher called Green “disgruntled,” had been fired and was “in retaliation mode” and “clueless to what she was talking about.”
Green said she stopped working for Thrasher on March 8, 2020, and began working for King after he took over on April 13.
“I was disgruntled,” Green said. “But it’s because of the lies he told. And because he screamed and shouted and ran after me in the barn. So, yeah, that will disgruntle somebody. But he’s just not telling the truth.
“I have no reason to lie,” she said. “He does.”
Green said there was pumping between lagoons, but no land application in the two years she worked there.
“Long story short: the ponds have never been vacated,” she said. “They’ve never been applied to the land since I had started working there.”
“For the first year or so that I worked there I don’t remember it being an issue,” Green said. “But, you know, afterwards, when the lagoons were getting near the top, it was always an issue. Like what is going to happen when it rains?”
Asked if the lagoons had ever overflowed before April 21, Green said, “yes.”
“It’s Dwayne’s fault,” Green said in regard to the April 21 spill. “Dwayne had managed it all the way until Brent took over. … You can’t blame the guy that took over in a week when you’ve left the lagoons fuller than two feet from the top.”
Thrasher acknowledged arguing with Green, and said Green had been a problem employee and that “I’ll get her for slander” if she said there had been previous overflows.
The Chinn Thrasher & Thrasher Farm Partnership liquidated and removed all hogs from its operations as of July 2020, King reported to the court.
On a recent Friday, the operations were silent. At the Clear Creek site, the eroded discharge zone from one lagoon and into a creek was still evident, with dead vegetation all over.
On the inside walls of the lagoon, there were numerous Sharpie markers and insemination tubes for impregnating sows. A syringe, vial and plastic glove were spotted in the mud. A small bird patrolled the bank of the lagoon.