JEFFERSON CITY — Proposed definition changes in the Missouri Clean Water Law would eliminate oversight over certain polluters and be detrimental to Missouri’s waters, opponents said in a state Senate hearing this week. On the other hand, supporters said it would cut back regulation and help Missouri farmers.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, would make two main revisions to the law.
Redefining water contaminants
The first change would narrow the definition of water contaminants. Under the bill, contaminants would be classified as coming from point sources, which are sources of pollution coming from a single, identifiable source, such as a factory or pipe. This is opposed to nonpoint sources, such as fields and lawns, where pollution can occur over wide areas and can’t be pinpointed.
As a result, if a farmer sprays pesticides or chemicals on his or her crops, and if rain occurs so those chemicals run off into the water system, the farmer would be exempt.
The federal Clean Water Act exempts nonpoint sources already, and Schatz said this revision would bring state law in alignment with federal law to protect farmers from “regulatory uncertainty.” The change would ease the concerns of farmers, he said, who work their fields while constantly worrying that unexpected rain will come.
Mike Deering, of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, testified about a producer in Versailles, Missouri, whose land was a nonpoint source of runoff, who got called up by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Deering said there was confusion about whether the producer was breaking the water law.
“There was no clarity to back that up in statute. This bill does just that,” he said.
“Anytime we can reduce red tape, that’s what we’re all for,” said Casey Wasser, a member of the Missouri Soybean Association.
But Frances Klahr, a member of Missouri’s Sierra Club, objected that nonpoint sources still cause pollution and therefore need oversight.
Columbia resident Diane Oerly pointed to her own experience as a stakeholder in a program aiming to improve water quality in Boone County’s Hinkson Creek.
“We’ve been studying what’s polluting the Hinkson, and it is not polluted by any point-source pollution,” Oerly said. “What we’re learning is the agricultural uses in the northern part of the county are (polluting) the streams. We don’t want to say nonpoint is not a pollution. It is and has been.”
Eliminating reasonable certainty
Currently, it is illegal to place a water contaminant in a location where it “is reasonably certain to cause” pollution to any body of water. The bill would change that part to simply “cause.”
John Madras, a former employee of the Department of Natural Resources, said he feared it would hinder the department from doing its job.
“It does make the situation such that the department would respond to pollution rather than preventing pollution,” he said.
He pointed to two examples where the department relied on the “reasonably certain” clause to stop water pollution from happening, including when a water treatment facility had a problem and couldn’t pay for its electricity. The electric utility company said they were going to cut off power.
“Water treatment plans do not work well without power,” Madras said. “We said: Time out, we need to do something or else we’re going to have raw sewage going right through the treatment plant and into the streams. This part of the statute is what we relied on in this instance.”
He added that the proposed change to “cause” would have been too high a bar for the department to take action.
Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, thought the current law’s phrasing too subjective, but Bob Menees, former assistant attorney general for the Department of Natural Resources, said it was a common objective phrasing in the judicial system.
Ultimately, Schatz said he was open to “tweaking” the bill to satisfy as many people as possible.
Oerly told committee members this issue is personal for her.
“I’m here on behalf of my grandson, who turned one on Wednesday,” she said. “He asked me to come to speak to you about the long-term implication of water and how important it is not just for our grandchildren but their grandchildren as well.”
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