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Final arguments held in civil case over farm regulation law

by Jeff Haldiman | March 13, 2021 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated March 13, 2021 at 12:13 p.m.

Final arguments were held Friday in Cole County Court in a civil lawsuit filed in August 2019 over a state law regarding regulations at large farming operations.

The law in question - Senate Bill 391, which was sponsored by state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City - would prohibit 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.

Judge Dan Green set aside a temporary restraining order to block the law from going into effect in September 2019.

Since then, those who believe the law shields large farms from stringent local health rules have continued their court battle with the state.

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 Missouri 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. They must also prove they are a legal company; provide neighbor notices; meet buffer distances; and provide plans for animal management, manure generation and nutrient management.

During Friday's hearing, Chesterfield attorney Stephen Jeffery, representing the counties and private citizens, said his clients contend under the federal and state constitutions, they have fundamental rights to maintain protections of their personal health and safety and they have the fundamental right to expect that their elected officials will "take reasonable and appropriate actions to protect the public health."

Jeffery said this was in context with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the state has contended in this case his clients have lacked the authority, after SB 391 was passed, to do anything to protect their local constituents' health. By expansion and analogy, Jeffery said, that would include their ability to protect citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic and its related afflictions.

Jeffery cited an executive order signed by Parson in June 2020 that states COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in workers at meat and poultry facilities in the state. Jeffery said they also found where the state acknowledged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a publication that said agricultural workers in agricultural facilities "present a unique risk of COVID-19 transmission based on their working conditions."

Jeffery noted there are no statewide health regulations imposing any health requirements on agricultural workers in these agricultural facilities.

Assistant Attorney General Justin Smith, representing Parson as well as the Air Conservation and Clean Water commissions, told Green the rights Jeffery had been arguing for haven't been recognized by a court in Missouri or anywhere else in the country.

"They are coming before you asking you to invent constitutional rights," Smith said. "They have to show that there is a fundamental right to be free of COVID-19 exposure, and they haven't established that. There are no court cases recognizing these rights. Also, jurisdictions around the state have found ways to pass their own COVID-19 health orders."

Both sides will offer more legal documentation to Green in the next few weeks.

There was no indication when Green could render a decision in this case.

Both parties are asking Green to issue a summary judgment, which is entered by a court for one party against another without a full trial. Summary judgments may be issued on the merits of an entire case or on discrete issues in that case.

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