Court order lifted, CAFO law takes effect

Circuit Judge Dan Green is shown presiding at the bench in Cole County court in this Aug. 31, 2018 file photo.
Circuit Judge Dan Green is shown presiding at the bench in Cole County court in this Aug. 31, 2018 file photo.

A court order blocking a new Missouri law that sought to shield large farms from stringent local health rules has been lifted - meaning the law is now in effect.

Cole County Judge Dan Green set aside a temporary restraining order he had put in place Friday, and on Wednesday, he cancelled a hearing scheduled for next week in a lawsuit filed by counties and local farmers against state officials, agencies and agriculture groups over the new law.

A new hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for December.

The law in question - Senate Bill 391, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, and signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson in May - prohibits county commissions and county health departments from passing regulations stricter than any state regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which are industrial-sized livestock operations.

In the lawsuit seeking to overturn the law, critics allege it's unconstitutional and infringes on local control.

Those named in the lawsuit who support SB 391 condemn the suit as a way to hold back farmers. They argue the law is needed to stop "scientifically unfounded" local health ordinances.

Filing the lawsuit were the Cedar County Commission; Cooper County Public Health Center; Friends of Responsible Agriculture of Fulton; and private citizens Jefferson Jones, of Fulton, and Susan Williams, of Clarksburg.

Named in the lawsuit are Gov. Mike Parson, Missouri Air Conservation Commission Chairman Gary Pendergrass, Missouri Clean Water Commission Chairwoman Ashley McCarty, the Missouri Pork Association, the Missouri Cattlemen's Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Under SB 391, a new or expansion of an existing facility would not occur until the Department of Natural Resources had issued an operating permit. CAFO applicants would have to demonstrate to DNR they can meet several rules and design criteria, and they must prove they are a legal company; provide neighbor notices; meet buffer distances; and provide plans for animal management, manure generation and nutrient management.

In his order setting aside the temporary restraining order, Green said he found the first restraining order granted by Cole County Presiding Judge Pat Joyce on Aug. 19 was without notice to the agriculture organizations as well as state officials named in the lawsuit. Green agreed with the argument made by those groups that Joyce's restraining order should have been allowed to expire because the respondents - the government and ag groups - did not receive notice of the order going into effect.

Green also noted 101 plaintiffs filed suit against the Cooper County Public Health Center in September 2018, before SB 391 was introduced, challenging regulations enacted in that county regarding CAFOs, and a temporary restraining order has been filed to challenge one of those regulations claiming it actually violates state law under SB 391.

During a hearing before Green on Aug. 30, the local groups argued if the temporary restraining order was dissolved, then the 22 counties that have their own orders in place dealing with CAFOs would be open to lawsuits filed by the agriculture groups. In his ruling, Green said he found they had not demonstrated evidence showing they would face such lawsuits.

Also at that hearing, lawyers representing the state and ag groups said keeping the order in place was denying their clients legal due process as well as preventing them from potential economic opportunities. In his ruling, Green agreed with their argument.