Except in one area, Missouri’s statewide COVID-19 response has been lax. The one area where it’s really stepped up: suspending environmental regulations.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has suspended rules governing gasoline volatility meant to ensure gasoline doesn’t increase ground-level ozone, which can worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. It has suspended rules governing asbestos projects. Asbestos has been linked to lung, larynx and ovarian cancer. It suspended standards for businesses that generate hazardous waste.

It has paid special attention to stripping oversight from concentrated animal feeding operations that house hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cattle and pigs in close quarters. It has loosened rules for dumping milk, allowing more animals per operation, relaxed buffer zones between operations and their neighbors, and waived requirements to construct waste pits that meet state design standards.

Operations don’t have to disclose if they’re killing hundreds of animals due to slaughterhouse closures. And they don’t have to disclose how they’re disposing of them.

These aren’t minor matters.

Industrial animal operations produce waste by the ton, which is usually stored in open pits. Even under normal circumstances, that storage method threatens both groundwater that flows to nearby wellsand our public trust waterways.

Killing animals when processing plants close means finding a safe way to dispose of them.

And the quantities of milk being dumped are enough to tax any wastewater plant. One farmer reported dumping 19,980 pounds of milk — in one day. Under the rule suspensions, that milk can go straight into a manure pit, then bake in the sun.

Pathogens and algae-feeding phosphorus from cattle waste and excess milk threaten the waters we swim, fish and boat in. They can also threaten the waters we drink.

It’s not like the DNR was holding polluters to a high standard before.

An investigation by the Missourian of regulatory action by the DNR and local regulators found little action around violations at CAFOs, low or nonexistent fines for operations that were found to have broken the rules and operations that were allowed to keep their permits despite repeated offenses.

The Missourian’s review of records found a dairy operation in Vernon County that caused four major spills of animal waste into state waters in three years, a hog operation in Audrain County that paid $4,000 in fines after spilling 5,000 gallons of animal waste into a river, and a hog operation in Saline County that killed fish by polluting a river.

What our already weak environmental enforcement agency is saying now is, “We’re done. We’re closed.”

Worse, this comes at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to set a floor for environmental safeguards, has also backed away.

What both Missouri and the country as a whole need to realize is that today’s pollution won’t be gone tomorrow. In fact, it may not even be gone next year. Dead fish can’t reproduce. Tainted wells don’t just turn clean.

Our children’s children may still be dealing with the aftermath of the federal and state safeguards we’re dropping today. Once polluted, our water, air and land could take generations to heal.

Rachel Bartels represents Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper and Marc Yaggi represents Waterkeeper Alliance. The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper is a grassroots, citizen-led conservation organization focused on clean water and dedicated to protecting fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for all Missourians, and is an active member of Waterkeeper Alliance.

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