TARKIO — Five Truman State University Students who thought they were going to spend the summer measuring hog odors in northern Missouri have lost their jobs because of a long-running dispute between the hog farm operators, nearby residents and state politicians.
The agriculture-science students were planning to respond to complaints about odors from several Premium Standard Farms operations by using scientific equipment to measure odors and record the results. At the urging of an environmental group, they were hired by Attorney General Chris Koster to help determine if Premium Standard was working to alleviate the odors.
But just before the program began Troy Paino, the Truman president, cut the jobs, The Kansas City Star reported.
"We came to the conclusion that by having our students participate, there was a risk they could be brought into the middle of ongoing legal disputes between PSF and the attorney general and citizen groups," Paino said. "We didn't think that would be in the best interest of the students."
Residents in northern Missouri have complained for two decades about the odor coming from Premium Standard farms. The company has been sued several times and paid millions in judgments. Last year, after Premium Standard had lost several nuisance lawsuits, Koster gave the company two more years to fix the problem.
As part of that agreement, Premium Standard said it would install odor-reducing technology in its 365 barns in northern Missouri during the next two years.
In March, a citizen group, the Citizens Legal Environmental Action Group, suggested to Koster that he employ some Truman students to monitor the odor complaints.
"We have a law in place that is pretty decent, but we don't have the funds in place to enforce it," said Rolf Christen, a farmer who is part of the citizen group, which first sued Premium Standard in the 1990s because of odors. "This was not done to condemn Premium Standard. This was done to prove the status of the situation."
Koster's office offered Truman a $20,000 grant to fund the program and pay the students. After the students were trained, the protocol for the testing was determined and a hotline for complaints was in place, Koster's office notified Premium Standard of its plans as a professional courtesy, spokeswoman Nancy Gonder said.
Shortly after that, Jewell Patek, Premium Standard's lobbyist, told some legislators and the school that the company was concerned about the program. Then Paino met with area legislators and canceled the students' work, saying the benefit didn't outweigh the potential risk.
Holly Boxley, Premium Standard's spokeswoman, said the corporation would defer to Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Williamsburg Republican who had supported Premium Standard in the legislature, or Truman officials for comment.
Munzlinger said he felt bad for the students but he believes that the Department of Natural Resources or other professionals should monitor the odor complaints. He questioned whether the students had been adequately trained for the responsibility.
"I don't think the university had thought all the way through this," Munzlinger said, adding that he didn't want the students to become involved in any legal action.
Supporters of the student program said it would have been effective in determining whether an odor problem still existed at Premium Standard operations.
"DNR has funding challenges that affect a combination of manpower and timing," said Maxine Lipeles, co-director of an environmental law clinic at Washington University who has advised citizen groups fighting the hog operations.
"The odors are at night when people are home. The school is close by. It made sense to work with Truman State."
Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's water programs, agreed.
"If I was PSF and I didn't think I had an odor problem, I'd fund the study," Dye said.
Koster's attorneys will continue to monitor Premium Standard's compliance with state odor laws, Gonder said.