An undated photo of the Pomme de Terre River, which runs through Webster, Greene, Dallas, Polk and Hickory counties. A meat packing company near Pleasant Hope wants a permit to discharge its wastewater into the river, which is already proposed for the impaired waters list. (Shannon Henry photo via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
A southwest Missouri river already contaminated with E. coli could soon receive up to 350,000 gallons of wastewater daily from a meatpacking facility.
And while the facility is expected to treat the wastewater for contamination before releasing it, critics of the proposal are worried about the operators’ history of violations at the site.
“It would be even worse than what they were currently doing — discharging it on land,” said Marisa Frazier, of the Missouri chapter of the environmental nonprofit Sierra Club.
The Pomme de Terre River, which winds through the Ozark region of southwest Missouri, provides clear, spring-fed water for canoeing, swimming and fishing. But in recent years, it has been on and off of a federal list of impaired waterways. A few months ago, the state environmental regulators once again proposed listing the Pomme de Terre as impaired by E. coli contamination.
But now, those same regulators are considering a request from Missouri Prime Beef Packers, which processes more than 3,500 cattle per week near Pleasant Hope, to treat wastewater from its operation using microorganisms and discharge it directly into the Pomme de Terre River. Right now, the facility applies the waste to its land as fertilizer.
The request is pending with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which has received more than 1,300 public comments, largely concerned about the potential harm to the river.
One opponent of the proposal — an attorney representing the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club — said that, based on the facility’s history of violating environmental regulations and the uncertainty around its proprietary technology to treat the wastewater, state regulators should take a more critical look at the beef packing company’s application.
The groups also wrote requesting a public hearing, which the attorney, Ethan Thompson, said was a smaller goal.
“Obviously, them denying the new discharge, I think, would be best for the environment, but we’ll take whatever we can get here,” said Thompson, of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.
Missouri Prime Beef Packers did not respond to requests for comment.
Following the company’s request, the department performed a “water quality and antidegradation review” to determine limits on the company’s pollution discharge to minimize harm to the Pomme de Terre.
It determined the company can sufficiently treat the wastewater with microbe technology called “iLeaf,” but if it doesn’t work, the review says, the state can require the company to switch to another treatment option.
But Thompson and his clients think the state’s review was inadequate. It doesn’t mention the river is recommended for the 303(d) list, a list of impaired waterways the state submits periodically to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has yet to sign off on the state’s latest list.
Once on the list, bodies of water are assigned a “total maximum daily load,” a limit on the amount of pollution that can enter the water.
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Pomme de Terre Lake, which is fed by the river of the same name, is already approved for the 303(d) list because of high levels of chlorophyll-a, but, according to Thompson’s letter, doesn’t have a total maximum daily load assigned yet. In his letter, Thompson says it’s illegal to approve new discharges into waters that are on the list before a maximum load has been approved.
Depending on when the EPA approves the river’s listing, the department could have the same problem with both the river and lake, Thompson’s letter says.
“The department should follow the law and either wait until a TMDL is developed before authorizing an additional discharge to the watershed or deny the discharge request altogether,” the letter says.
The presence of chlorophyll-a indicates the lake is receiving too much phosphorus and nitrogen.
Untreated, the meatpacking facility would contribute even more of those chemicals. Its proprietary iLeaf technology is designed to treat the water to remove phosphorus and nitrogen, among other contaminants, but Frazier called the technology “untested.”
“We don’t know the effectiveness of it, and we haven’t seen it used in other places,” she said.
An excess of phosphorus and nitrogen can lead to harmful algae blooms, which reduce the oxygen in rivers and lakes and kill fish. Some blooms can lead to toxins and bacteria that can make people sick.
John Hoke, director of the department’s water protection program, said the review was performed to help the state determine the amount of pollution the facility can release into the river without causing additional harm.
“We set the limits to protect water quality so there’s no excessive degradation,” Hoke said.
He said the facility “will not be causing or contributing” to the river’s impairment.
Hoke also said a significant portion of the E. coli bacteria in the Pomme de Terre is likely coming from “nonpoint sources,” meaning livestock runoff from fields.
Thompson and Frazier also expressed skepticism about the proposal given the facility’s compliance history. It has been out of compliance with its clean water permit for 12 consecutive quarters and did not submit required reports at all from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021.
Hoke said the facility would have to comply with monitoring requirements. Its management, which took over in 2021, has been “very cooperative and very attentive,” Hoke said.
The department is accepting public comments on the antidegradation review. Once the comment period closes, the comments will be included in the facility’s permit. That process will involve another public comment period and public hearing.
Hoke said the department is looking for a venue for the public meeting now.
This article has been updated since it was initially published.
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