CAFOs threaten environmental quality across rural Missouri, leading to opposition from locals

Photography and writing by Lily Dozier

Scott checks to make sure he has everything he needs in his water testing kit on Monday, Nov. 6, 2021 at the farmhouse his grandfather built in Putnam County, Mo. Scott regularly tests the water around the home to make sure the neighboring CAFO is not causing damage to the quality.

For some, it is too late

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.

Hog barns line the horizon uphill from a pond that marks the end of Scott’s property on Monday, Nov. 6, 2021 at a CAFO in Putnam County, Mo. According to the US Department of Agriculture, a feeding operation must have at least 2,500 hogs to be considered a CAFO. However, according to the Environmental Working Group, some large CAFOs can house up to ten times that number.

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.

Scott pauses while sipping a soda and discussing the negative impacts the neighboring CAFO has had on his family’s multigenerational farm on Monday, Nov. 6, 2021 at the farmhouse his grandfather built in Putnam County, Mo. “The DNR has become more of a joke than anything,” he said. “It’s starting to feel more like it stands for Does Not Respond.”

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.

Scott watches CAFO employees in hazmat suits while they work outside a hog barn on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 near his childhood home in Putnam County, Mo. He suspected they were cleaning out a clogged pipe.

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.

Scott uses an ECTestr to check the salinity levels of the water in a creek at the edge of his family farm’s property on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 in Putnam County, Mo. He routinely checks the water quality to make sure the CAFO that moved next door in the 1990s isn’t causing contamination.

Scott checks a water sample on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at his family’s farm in Putnam County, Mo. Scott, who now lives in Columbia, said he would have raised his family at the farm had the CAFO not disrupted the area.

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.

Seen through trees on Scott’s property, an employee walks between waste lagoons on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at a neighboring CAFO in Putnam County, Mo. These disposal areas trap waste from hog barns.

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.

Izzy attempts to cross the creek while her grandma, Susan, tests the water upstream on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at a stream near the proposed Tipton East CAFO site in Cooper County, Mo. Susan said the water is safe to play in now, but she is concerned it would become polluted if a CAFO was built nearby.

For others, there is still time

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.

From left, Justus, Susan, Izzy and Malachi carry water testing supplies down a ditch toward a creek near their home in Cooper County, Mo. Susan and her friend Tena regularly test the water in this creek to have a baseline in case a CAFO is built nearby that might cause pollution.

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.

From left, Justus, Tena, Malachi, Izzy and Susan search for small organisms sifted out of creek water on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at a stream near their home in Cooper County, Mo. Counting and logging the number of found organisms helps determine the quality of creek water based on its ability to support life.

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.

Malachi watches as Tena drops a reagent into a test tube filled with creek water to test the chlorine level of the water on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2021 at a creek near their home in Cooper County, Mo. While chlorine is added to water to help disinfect it, too much can cause dry skin, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms.

Justus carries a net used to sift freshwater organisms on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at a stream near their home in Cooper County, Mo. Finding and counting these organisms is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s water-testing procedure.

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.

Malachi holds up sample jars, one containing left-handed snails and the other containing right-handed snails, on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2021 at a stream near their home in Cooper County, Mo. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, right-handed snails are less tolerant of pollution because they have gills and rely on high oxygen content in the water to survive. In contrast, left-handed snails do not have gills and rely on surface level oxygen, so they are better suited to survive pollution.

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.

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