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story.lead_photo.caption Circuit Judge Dan Green is shown presiding at the bench in Cole County court in this Aug. 31, 2018 file photo. Photo by News Tribune

The legal battle over a state law seeking to shield large farms in Missouri from stringent local health rules continues in Cole County Court.

Cole County Judge Dan Green on Wednesday heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by counties and local farmers against state officials, agencies and agriculture groups over the law.

In September, Green set aside a temporary restraining order he had put in place, which allowed the law to take effect.

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 2019 — prohibits county commissions and county health departments from passing regulations stricter than any state regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations, 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 SB391 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. Their attorney, Stephen Jeffrey, argued local county health departments and county commissions still have the authority to reject CAFOs from coming into their community.

Named in the lawsuit are Gov. 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. Defending the state's position in this case is Assistant Attorney General Justin Smith, who said the state law forbids local authorities the control they are seeking.

Under SB391, a new facility 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.

Both sides were to submit legal briefings to Green, and there was no indication Wednesday when the judge could render a decision or when a another hearing could take place.

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