Pokin Around: I thought we liked local control over local issues; just not with CAFOs?
Steve Pokin, Springfield News-LeaderPublished 10:00 p.m. CT Dec. 7, 2019
Back in November, two of the three members of the Greene County Board of Commissioners failed, in my view, to stand up for local control over what might become a local issue.
The comments made by Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon bothered me then and they bother me today.
Dixon explained in November that he would not ask the commission to vote on a non-binding resolution criticizing a new state law on concentrated area feeding operations (CAFOs) because he didn't want to upset the Republican lawmakers from Greene County who voted for it.
My first thought: Does Dixon realize he's no longer a Republican state lawmaker?
He became presiding commissioner after serving eight years in the House and another eight in the state Senate. He is a Republican, as are the other two commissioners — Harold Bengsch and John C. Russell, who was appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Mike Parson in January.
I've always found Dixon to be thoughtful. I too will do my best to be thoughtful in this column.
When voters chose Dixon as presiding commissioner in November 2018, they weren't sending him back to Jefferson City.
He was elected to represent those of us here at the Greene County level.
I don't remember him pledging in his campaign: "Bob Dixon: I Promise to Never Upset Our GOP State Lawmakers."
The resolution was brought to the county by two City Council members: Andy Lear and Mike Schilling, a former Democratic state representative. Council members do not have to run as Republicans or Democrats.
Lear and Schilling view the new law as an intrusion into local control of local issues.
The law says that no local governmental body, including and most importantly counties, can have tighter controls on CAFO operations than the state of Missouri.
A CAFO is an operation in which thousands of pigs or chickens can be housed in roofed buildings on a single property.
CAFOs have prompted concerns about water pollution and manure-fueled odors here and in other states — including Iowa, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arkansas.
In Arkansas, a hog farm was approved years ago in the watershed of an Ozarks treasure, the Buffalo National River.
The hog farm, six miles from the Buffalo, ended operations in June, when Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the shutdown.
Up until June, the owners of C&H Hog Farms, with support from the Arkansas Farm Bureau, had resisted efforts to close or relocate.
Hearings had dragged on for years as environmentalists argued that the porous limestone beneath the hog CAFO allowed waste to seep into the water table and that the land application of waste had contributed to runoff polluting a nearby stream that feeds into the Buffalo.
Do we really need to suck up?
Here in Missouri, the Missouri Farm Bureau was the main backer of the new state law, along with the Missouri Cattlemen's Association.
Although no vote was taken on the non-binding resolution in November, the commissioners explained where they stood to News-Leader reporter Austin Huguelet.
Dixon said he did not want to ruffle the feathers of our GOP state lawmakers.
"That creates a very large risk for us given how helpful the delegation was to the
county this year," Dixon said.
He pointed out that the Republican-dominated assembly recently allocated money for a new county judge here.
I have to ask: Do we really run the risk of being short-changed as a county if we don't suck up to our state reps?
If so, what does that say about our state reps?
(Greene County has only one Democratic state representative: Crystal Quade.)
Commissioner Russell agreed with Dixon, but he also said he didn't think the new
law would affect Greene County's regulations and didn't think a statement would help
"If I thought it would do something and this would fix something, I would probably be
much more supportive," he said.
I'll respond to that in a minute when I tell you about the entirely different path taken by the all-Republican commission up in Cedar County.
Our third commissioner, Harold Bengsch, disagreed with Dixon and, in my view, saw exactly what the issue is.
Every year, he said, the Greene County Commission asks lawmakers to avoid legislation that takes power away from local officials.
Yet, the legislature passed the CAFO law and another one making it difficult for the commission to regulate the construction of a controversial cell tower.
"I think we have an opportunity here to pass a statement confirming and supporting
our longstanding request that usurping legislation at the local level is not done,"
In a nutshell, CAFO farm operations — which do not necessarily have to be owned and operated by large corporations that are located in foreign lands — want an even playing field throughout Missouri. They want to face the same rules and regulations across our 114 counties.
It makes things simpler, easier and — from their perspective — fairer.
State laws and federal laws already cover all possible concerns and controversies, they argue.
They also contend that they want approval for CAFO operations to be based on science, not emotion and unfounded fear.
The main argument against that, as Bengsch said: Who decides whether all possible concerns and controversies are already covered by state and federal law?
Opponents of the state law also believe that state and federal laws regarding CAFOs do not take into account local geology.
In other words, you need local rules to factor in local springs, local rivers, local watersheds and the porous karst topography of the Ozarks.
Thirdly, should one side — the Missouri Farm Bureau and other proponents of CAFOs — close further and all discussion on what the science of water pollution does or does not say?
A different path in Cedar County
"The topography of Missouri south of the Missouri River is different from north of the river," says Marlon Collins, presiding commissioner of Cedar County.
Collins and his fellow commissioners — all Republicans — have sued the state over what they see as an encroachment on local control regarding CAFO regulations. Cedar County is footing part of the bill for an outside law firm.
By the way, all the state lawmakers from Cedar County are Republicans.
"I campaigned for those folks and helped put their signs up," he says.
"We have El Dorado Springs, Jericho Springs, Cedar Springs, we have the Sac River, we have Cedar Creek, we have Horse Creek," he tells me. "We have springs all over this county and sinkholes."
The Cedar County rules regarding CAFOs were established after months of meetings with county residents, he says.
"We heard from our local farmers who were making complaints about the small CAFOs coming in," he says. "We had public hearings."
"The state laws are pretty weak — one size fits all," he tells me.
He says no one has filed to run against him in the next election.
"All I've been hearing since we filed the lawsuit is, 'Hey, don't let them do that to us."
Cedar County, thus far, has received no political backlash from a miffed GOP state lawmaker who voted for the state law.
But Collins admits, "I am worried about repercussions from them."
He and the other commissioners were or are members of the Missouri Farm Bureau and Missouri Cattlemen's Association.
"We are not anti-CAFO, although they try to portray us that way," he says. "We have been portrayed as being anti-farmer. We are not.
"There has to be a proper place and a proper procedure and some standards that have to be met."
Those standards should be local, not statewide, he says, and Cedar County is willing to fight for that belief.
Finally: Did you know Stockton Lake, Springfield's No. 2 source of drinking water, is in Cedar County?
If you ask me, Cedar County should send part of its legal bill to Greene County.