Craptastrophe: Record rainfall has created a dung dilemma for Missouri farmers

As record-setting rain poured down on Missouri late last month, state farmers, lawmakers and environmentalists knew — in a most literal fashion — they were going to be in deep doo-doo.

Northeastern Missouri is home to a large number of industrial hog farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000 or more pigs are housed under one roof, and the millions of gallons of manure is stored onsite in uncovered manmade lagoons. The unrelenting rains caused the lagoons to fill to the brim.

To keep the massive pools of manure from overflowing or, worse, rupturing, Governor Matt Blunt, at the urging of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, issued an executive order on June 20 that allows farmers in nineteen counties to spray as much of the waste as they felt necessary onto their sodden fields.

"Given the magnitude of the recent storm events and expectation of additional rain, the department has waived land application limits and restrictions," the order read. "This must include land applying effluent on pasture or other vegetated ground that may be wet or saturated."

Officials from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency hoped the pollutants contained in the poop — particularly concentrated phosphorous and nitrogen — would be diluted by the heavy rains and have a minimal effect on the water supply.

"Any wastewater that was irrigated at that time, some portion of it is leaving the field into a stream. The question is, Was there was a water-quality impact?" wonders Derek Steen, who oversees Missouri's CAFOs for the natural resources agency. "We will likely investigate some of those areas to determine how much of an impact there was."

"We had some [lagoons] that overflowed but they would be measured more in the thousands of gallons, not in the millions," says Steen, adding that the CAFOs nearest to St. Louis in St. Charles and Franklin counties were not affected by the flooding.

Rolf Christen, a farmer who lives about four miles south of a CAFO in Sullivan County, says the impact on the streams near his farm was severe. He saw hundreds of dead fish floating in coffee-colored water.

"The water, it stunk like hog shit. It was really bad," says Christen, who raises cattle in addition to soybeans and oats. "There were large amounts of dead fish."

Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says she's troubled by the state's decision.

Submitted Video: Where the wastewater meets the stream

"It may volume-wise dilute the nitrogen [in the manure], but it isn't walking away," she says. "Some of it is going to the air, some of it will get stopped along the way in the rivers and streams, and the rest will go down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico and kill fish there."

The hog farmers and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources maintain that irrigating the fields was the best alternative to a lagoon bursting open under the weight of the rainwater.

"Even if the field is wet, you still have a whole lot of plants to filter that material and to absorb whatever nutrients there is," says Don Nikodim, executive director of the Missouri Pork Producers Association. "It's much better to disperse it over large areas than to let it run over in one spot and get into the waterway."

Still, officials admit they have no idea how much manure farmers actually applied to their wet fields in the wake of the disaster. Donna Porter, the CAFO permit coordinator for the Missouri region of the EPA, says farmers are required to report how much waste was pumped, but that they are essentially on the honor system.

"It's such a large area that nobody has the manpower to get out there," Porter says. "If there are 100 facilities, you have to have some kind of trust. There's no way you can get to all of them."

For some, the dung dilemma precipitated by the flood of 2008 highlights the need for reform of the state's emergency planning in regard to CAFOs and their potentially hazardous lagoons.

"We think it's ridiculous to have CAFOs in floodplains," says Russ Kremer, a hog farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union. "When you have that many animals concentrated on one location, Mother Nature comes along and you have something that's a near catastrophe in terms of pollution."