Missouri lawmakers said it was a small change.
The state’s Clean Water Commission, which helps set and enforce water quality standards aimed at preventing pollution, is made up of seven members. At least four of them have to be members of the general public, and no more than two can represent the agriculture and mining industries.
But thanks to an amendment added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the 2016 legislative session, the commission’s makeup may change.
Instead of a a minimum of four members representing the public, the commission would be limited to a maximum of four. And instead of a maximum of two members representing the agriculture and mining industries, it would have a minimum of two members.
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The change may appear small, critics say, but its impact could be huge.
It opens the door for agriculture and mining interests to hold a majority on the commission, giving them greater sway over water regulations and putting polluting industries in charge of preventing water pollution.
“We’re talking about appointing more people to the commission who are interested in protecting the needs of industries with a history of causing problems with clean water,” Rep. Tracy McCreery, a St. Louis Democrat, said during debate on the proposal. “We’re making the commission heavy with industry people who don’t have a reputation for caring about clean water.”
Ray McCarty, president of the business advocacy organization Associated Industries of Missouri, said the goal of the change is to ensure the commission is made up of people with expertise in the field they are trying to regulate.
“This allows the governor to appoint more than two to represent agriculture, industry or mining,” McCarty said. “They are the ones most likely to have disputes or issues before the Clean Water Commission, so it makes sense to have more people with experience in those areas.”
The amendment was added to a bill in the Senate on a voice vote after only a couple of minutes of discussion. The underlying bill was approved with only two senators voting against it. In the House, McCreery raised concerns, but ultimately the legislation was sent to Gov. Jay Nixon on a 112-37 vote.
The change stems from a decision in February by the Clean Water Commission to strip a large-scale animal feeding lot of its permit.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued a permit in August 2015 to Trenton Farms, a corporation in Pipestone, Minn., to build a facility to house 6,000-plus hogs in rural Grundy County, near the Iowa border.
The concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, would generate more than 90 tons of manure each year along with millions of gallons of wastewater.
The permit was then sent to the seven-member Clean Water Commission. Its job is to adopt regulations and policies to carry out the objectives of the federal Clean Water Law. On a 4-2 vote, the commission revoked the permit, saying the corporation behind the application had not proved it had the assets to maintain the facility or pay to clean up any potential accidents.
Less than a week after that vote, a bill was introduced in the Missouri House that would allow a company to keep its permit as long as it was registered with the state and in good standing.
Over the next few months, that provision was attached to several other bills, but opposition to the idea kept it from getting to a vote in the Senate. So critics of the Clean Water Commission’s decision decided to switch tactics.
With less than a week to go before the session ended, an amendment was added to a bill in the Senate pertaining to wastewater treatment facilities that changed the membership requirements of the commission.
“I’m not changing the makeup (of the commission), but rather allowing a change in the makeup to be made,” Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Lewis County Republican, said while introducing the amendment.
Rep. Tim Remole, a Macon County Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, said the governor would still be in charge of appointing members to the commission, and the Senate would still have to approve those appointments.
“I had some concerns when I first saw it, but after studying it, I don’t have a problem with it now,” he said.
But the next governor could decide to stack the board with industry representatives, said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, an advocacy group representing small farms.
“There could end up being no members representing the public on a board that is supposed to look after the public’s interest,” Gibbons said.
McCreery panned the process by which the change was made. There were no committee hearings or public input on the amendment, she said, and it was rushed through the process with no vetting.
“All the sudden in the last week of session we’re trying to dramatically change the makeup of the commission,” she said. “The fact that none of us have seen this until now should be a red flag that something is being pushed through without proper vetting.”
The Clean Water Commission’s decision to strip Trenton Farms of its permit unsettled many in the agriculture community, McCarty said. The commission ruling didn’t follow state law, he said, and if industry was better represented, perhaps that vote would have been different.
McCarty doesn’t believe a governor would stack the commission to favor industry, and even if that happened, “just because someone has experience in an industry doesn’t mean they’re going to side with their industry.”
“We’d hope each would be objective,” he said, “and look at all the facts before them.”
Critics of the bill are calling on Nixon to veto it. He has until mid-July to make a decision.
“Water is one of our most precious resources,” McCreery said during House debate. “Once we’ve ruined our water supply, it’s often impossible to undo. This is not just about Missouri. It’s about being good neighbors about those living downstream as well.”