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Nov. 14, 2023 |  By: Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

Missouri may deny meat packer’s request to dump wastewater in river


By Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

State regulators are poised to deny a request from a southwest Missouri meat packer to discharge treated wastewater directly into a river already impaired by E. coli. 

Missouri Prime Beef Packers requested permission from the state to treat wastewater from its meatpacking operation near Pleasant Hope using a proprietary microbe technology and discharge it directly into the Pomme de Terre River

Right now, the company  applies its wastewater to surrounding land as fertilizer.

But the Missouri Department of Natural Resources last week posted a draft denial of the request to its website. It will accept public comments until early January before making a final decision. 

“Hearing the concerns from the public, we really started to dig in then on that technology, and there are a number of questions that we did not have answers for,” John Hoke, director of the Department of Natural Resources’ water protection program, said in an interview Monday. 

The proposed denial was a win for environmental groups who raised concerns about the effectiveness of the iLeaf microbe technology and the Pomme de Terre’s status as an impaired waterway. Hoke said the technology can be used in some systems, but the department hadn’t seen it used at the scale the meat packing facility would use it. 

The Pomme de Terre River, which winds through the Ozark region of southwest Missouri, provides clear, spring-fed water for canoeing, swimming and fishing, making it a popular destination. It was designated an impaired waterway in recent years but had improved and been removed from the list.

Missouri regulators proposed, and the Environmental Protection Agency approved, including it on the list again this summer.

The river was found in 2019 to have an average of more than 200 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water, well above the limit of 126. At that level, fewer than one person per 1,000 is likely to get a gastrointestinal illness, according to the state.

E. coli data from 2020 are incomplete because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on sample collection. Data from 2021 and 2022 are not yet available.

Pomme de Terre Lake, which is fed by the river, is also on the impaired waters because of high levels of chlorophyll-a. Presence of the chemical indicates a body of water is receiving too much phosphorus and nitrogen, which can lead to harmful algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water and kill fish. Some blooms can lead to toxins and bacteria that can make people sick. 

Runoff from farms is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are found in animal waste. Untreated, the water from the meatpacking facility’s processing of 3,500 cattle per week may also contain those chemicals.

The Missouri Prime Beef Packers’ facility proposed using its microbe technology to purify the wastewater before discharging it into the river. But the state’s draft denial says the company didn’t meet all of the regulatory requirements to use an innovative technology, though an earlier review by the state found the technology sufficient to treat the wastewater.

Hoke said in August that the state could approve the discharge because the facility was required to disinfect the wastewater and, therefore, wouldn’t cause or contribute to the Pomme de Terre’s impairment. 

But on Monday, Hoke said the state didn’t have adequate assurance the facility wouldn’t contribute to the river’s water quality problems.

Following public comments saying the department needed to do more research on the iLeaf technology, Hoke said, the department realized it needed more information. It sent a letter to the facility seeking answers and didn’t get a satisfactory response.

Without that information, the department moved toward denying the permit. 

Ethan Thompson, an attorney representing environmental groups critical of the request, argued this summer that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources needed to wait to approve the permit until the state approved a cap on the amount of pollution allowed to enter the Pomme de Terre River in an effort to improve the water quality. 

Until that happens, Thompson argued allowing a new discharge into the river could violate the Clean Water Act. 

“The (Missouri Department of Natural Resources) should follow the law and either wait…before authorizing an additional discharge to the watershed or deny the discharge request altogether,” Thompson, an attorney for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, wrote in a letter to the state earlier this year.

Missouri Prime Beef Packers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.