Critics: Missouri Senate bill jeopardizes efforts to prevent river pollution

Legislation considered essential to fund Missouri's environmental regulatory agency now includes an amendment that could drastically hinder efforts to protect the state's rivers from pollution.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources calls the issue -- nonpoint source pollution --"the greatest threat to the state's waters," according to its website.

The amendment, which was added in a Senate committee, strikes a single phrase from the Missouri Clean Water Law.

But environmental advocates fear it could have far-reaching consequences, including a potential takeover of state water regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a loss of millions of dollars in grant money for pollution control.

"This takeover is referred to as 'dedelegation,' and is viewed by environmentalists and industry alike as a nuclear option," Michael Berg, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said in an email to state senators last week. "It is a drastic measure, and one not easily reversed."

Asked about the proposed change on Tuesday, Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said the amendment would be removed when the full Senate takes it up for debate.

"Even the people that wanted it in thought maybe it did more than they thought it did," Bernskoetter said, adding there was confusion about the language. He said supporters would continue to work on it after the end of the legislative session.

As introduced, the bill in question made a minor change to the makeup of a state environmental commission. It was amended in the Missouri House to include language that would renew the fees charged to industry to fund the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Without the legislation, the department's authority to collect some of those fees would expire this year.

But members of a Senate committee adopted a substitute that would eliminate "nonpoint source" pollution from the definition of water contaminant sources in the Missouri Clean Water Law.

Critics contend the amendment undermines DNR's ability to prevent nonpoint source pollution, which includes runoff from farms, parking lots, mines, construction sites, industrial hog farms and other indirect sources.

Of the rivers in Missouri that are contaminated enough to wind up on the list of impaired waters, roughly 87 percent are there because of nonpoint source pollution, according to DNR's website.

Nonpoint sources of pollution can contribute nitrates and phosphorus, nutrients that are found in fertilizer, to water, causing algae blooms that can kill aquatic wildlife. Other nonpoint source pollutants include bacteria, sediment and chloride, according to the state.

Pollution that winds up in the Mississippi River can flow downstream to the Gulf of Mexico and contribute to the "dead zone," or hypoxic zone, an area of low to no oxygen that is, on average, more than 4,200 square miles or 2 million acres. The lack of oxygen, caused by nutrient pollution, can kill fish and marine life.

The legislation was also amended to say the Missouri Department of Natural Resources could not rely on guidance documents from the EPA in enforcement procedures.

Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, which is supporting that amendment, said DNR isn't using EPA guidance documents. But the language would "codify" that practice.

McCarty pushed legislation in 2021 and 2022 that barred the state from enacting hazardous waste rules that are any stricter than federal legislation because -- at that time -- he said the state was relying on federal guidance documents in its enforcement efforts.

That legislation was backed by a Mid-Missouri business owned by the family of Republican donor Barry Orscheln amid the company's showdown with the state over long-running contamination.

Downriver pollution

For years, Missouri and other states along the Mississippi River have tried to reduce pollution to shrink the size of the dead zone.

The state currently uses voluntary efforts to reduce the amount of nonpoint source pollution entering the state's waters.

Chris Wieberg, who represents Missouri on a task force meant to address the hypoxic zone, said the state receives millions of dollars to find ways to reduce nutrient runoff into rivers. Planting cover crops is one way farmers can prevent soil erosion and runoff.

Wieberg referred questions about the legislation to the department's legislative liaison, who referred questions to the department's spokeswoman. She said the department doesn't comment on pending legislation.

Another House bill with the fee extensions and ban on using guidance documents has also passed the Senate committee. It doesn't include the nonpoint source pollution amendment.

But environmentalists fear the nonpoint source pollution amendment could jeopardize the state's ability to protect its rivers.

State Sen. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, was absent because of a broken ankle when the committee adopted the amendment. Otherwise, she said, she "would have definitely spoken out on it."

She said she plans to ask questions about the intent and interests behind the amendment if the bill reaches the Senate floor.

"I hate to sound cynical," McCreery said, "but I have been a public policymaker for a long time, and this does not pass the smell test for me. This seems like it has been put in to benefit a certain industry, a certain company, a certain donor."

She said water is nobody's property, and pollution created in Missouri affects people downstream.

"It's really quite selfish of us to do something like this that could have a negative environmental impact on our neighbors downstream," she said.

Berg said legislators shouldn't tack on an amendment that would weaken environmental regulation on a must-pass bill to fund the department.

"If someone thinks that there's a compelling reason for it, it should be taken up separately," Berg said in an interview, "so that we can debate the merits outside of the framework of these absolutely necessary fee renewals."

The Missouri Independent,, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.