TRENTON — Uncertainty about the future of a key employer in northern Missouri brought more than 1,000 supporters of Premium Standard Farms to Trenton to rally behind the corporate hog giant.
Inside a packed gymnasium at North Central Missouri College on Tuesday night, dozens of people — many of whom either work for Premium Standard or for companies that benefit from its presence — spoke of what would happen to the economy if the company were to leave the area.
Under a consent judgment handed down in 1999 after the Princeton-based company was sued for numerous environmental violations, Premium Standard is required to implement "next generation technology" to reduce or eliminate pollutants and odors at all of its Missouri operations. The decree, which was extended in 2004, requires the new technology to represent a "distinct evolution" of current industry practices in dealing with pollutants.
A three-member panel of agriculture professors will decide whether technology implemented by Premium Standard was sufficient to meet goals set forth in the ruling.
While acknowledging that the company has made progress to reduce odors and other types of pollution over the past decade, panel members on Tuesday noted that Premium Standard still hasn't met benchmarks required of "next generation technology."
The company has until July 31 to either have the technology in place or face a possible lawsuit from the state.
But company President Bill Homann said the panel hasn't approved any of Premium Standards' proposals, so it will be tough to meet that deadline.
"No one in our industry, or the world for that matter, has yet identified or developed a workable technology that significantly reduces odors from large tunnel-ventilated hog farms," he said in a statement.
Homann said the company has spent $40 million in the past 10 years on technology to alleviate pollution issues but still hasn't been able to satisfy the decree.
"Have you ever stopped to think, is $40 million enough?" Shawn Bowman, who has worked for Premium Standard for 17 years, asked panel members. "If PSF can't afford to implement these and is forced to close their farms, where do you guys recommend for us to look in northwest Missouri for jobs?"
Mike Williams, a faculty member at North Carolina State University and member of the panel, said the group could decide within the next month whether Premium Standard's latest proposal, submitted late last week, is sufficient.
Homann says the proposed systems would take about two years to implement, if approved.
Jack McManus, an assistant attorney general who is chief counsel of the office's agriculture and environment division, said the July 31 deadline could be extended. "If PSF hasn't achieved compliance or reached an agreement with us on clear goals for implementing and completion of next generation technology, we will bring a lawsuit," he told The Associated Press after the meeting.
But more litigation is the last thing the embattled Premium Standard needs after a recent jury decision in Kansas City awarding a total of more than $11 million to 15 plaintiffs who sued the company over hog odors.
Premium Standard said it plans to appeal that early March decision, even as it gears up for several more lawsuits filed by a Kansas City attorney who has acknowledged that one of his goals is to close confined animal feeding operations in the state.