Photography and writing by Lily Dozier
Scott Dye grew up in the farmhouse his grandfather built, now over a century ago, in Putnam County, Mo. Today, he lives in Columbia, but he still visits the house whenever he's able. Aside from Scott's visits, the house remains mostly unoccupied.
The atmosphere at the family's long-owned property has changed since his childhood, mostly due to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) that was built next door in the 1990s.
What stands out first is the stench. Even in the winter, on windy days, the smell of hog manure wafts across the rolling hills and onto Scott's property. This stench, Scott claims, is much worse on hot, muggy summer days.
CAFOs are proven to contribute to a reduction of air quality in the areas surrounding them, according to the CDC. The most common air pollutants that can be a risk to human health are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter. They can cause a variety of health issues, including inflammation, chemical burns, and respiratory problems.
However, what is less immediately noticeable than the smell is the impact CAFOs can have on water quality.
According to the CDC, groundwater can be contaminated in a variety of ways. First, water pollution can be caused by runoff from land application of manure as well as leaching from manure that has improperly been spread on land. Sometimes pollution can be caused more accidentally, such as via leaks or breaks in manure containment units.
States with high CAFO concentrations tend to experience around 20 to 30 serious water quality problems every year as a direct result of manure management issues, according to the EPA. In 2000, the EPA found that 29 states specifically identified animal feeding operations as contributing to decreased water quality.
Contamination of groundwater is a major concern, as the EPA estimates that 53% of the United States' population relies on groundwater for drinking water. Of this majority, many live in rural communities, who rely on groundwater at much higher rates than other parts of the population.
Aside from groundwater, CAFOs also tend to lead to increased rates of contamination in surface water, such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
This can be caused by storms or floods that cause manure storage lagoons to overflow into nearby bodies of water, including manmade ditches found in CAFOs or water that passes directly through farming areas.
Surface water contamination can cause a buildup of nitrates and other nutrients, such as ammonia, which causes oxygen depletion from water and can kill aquatic life.
Consistent and comprehensive water testing can help monitor pollutant levels and also help communities ensure their water sources are staying clean over time.
Scott also knows that if his samples show an increase in pollution, he is able to report those findings to the Department of Natural Resources in an attempt to fight back against the CAFO that ultimately led to his decision to leave his family's farm.
While he has had little luck working with the DNR, he still tests the water on his property regularly to ensure it remains healthy.
Susan Williams and her friend, Tena Potts, spend many weekends testing the water in a creek near their home in Cooper County, Mo. with their grandchildren.
Izzy Williams, 9, Justus Whitson, 12, and Malachi Whitson, 11, enjoy splashing downstream and finding snails while their grandmothers do the more mundane tasks, such as testing pH levels, water clarity, and checking salinity.
However, when it is time to sift the creek for small freshwater organisms, all three children scurry back up along the bank to help search. Finding and counting these freshwater organisms is unanimously the favorite part of testing the water for all three children.
The game is to find as many as possible. The water quality score– as far as its ability to support life– increases with the number of organisms they count.
For Susan and Tena, testing the water is more than a fun time with family.
Susan has been fighting the planned Tipton East CAFO, which would be built half a mile away from land owned by her son, for years. Alongside her son, she helps organize the Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs group, or OCCC. A private Facebook page for the organization lists 232 members.
Her main concern with the CAFO is that it would pollute groundwater, which she and her family members rely on for drinking water. She does not trust the DNR to protect the community's only water source from pollution if the Tipton East CAFO is built.
According to a previous Missourian review in 2020, she is right to be concerned. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and local regulators often ignore or only impose small fines on CAFOs for environmental offenses, and allow them to keep their permits despite repeat offenses.
Then, in 2020, Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 391 into law. The bill makes it illegal for county commissions or local health departments to enforce any health regulations or ordinances related to CAFOs.
Even though there is no CAFO nearby yet, there are still benefits to testing the water.
If the EPA has a collection of water sample results from Cooper County prior to the CAFO being built, it makes it much easier to prove that the CAFO is the cause of increased pollution in the future.
Susan continues to test water near the proposed location for the Tipton East CAFO in hopes of strengthening that baseline data. Without support from state and local government, she worries the CAFO might be permitted to begin operations despite community backlash.
Her biggest fear is that her children and grandchildren will lose access to the clean outdoors environment they have grown up in. One day, she worries, it might not be safe for her grandchildren to splash downstream in the creek like they do today.
These photos were made to accompany a story written by a reporter for the Columbia Missourian. The original work was not published.