A court order blocking a new Missouri law that sought to shield large farms from stringent local health rules remains in place, although the state and several agriculture groups formally asked a Cole County judge to dissolve the order Friday.
Judge Dan Green said during a Friday hearing he would maintain the ban on enforcing the law until he holds a hearing on the case Sept. 16.
The case was transferred to Green earlier this week. Presiding Judge Pat Joyce had initially been assigned the case, and on Aug. 20 she delayed the law's effectiveness until Thursday. Green then issued an extension of Joyce's temporary restraining order.
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 — 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.
The bill would have taken effect Wednesday, as did all state laws that were signed by the governor.
In a lawsuit to overturn the law, critics allege it's unconstitutional and infringes on local control.
The Missouri Farm Bureau and several other agricultural groups named in the lawsuit are condemning it as a way to hold back farmers. The groups 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 the 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.
During Friday's hearing, Chesterfield attorney Stephen Jeffery, representing the counties and private citizens, called three witnesses: Jones; Williams; and Melanie Hutton, the administrator of the Cooper County Health Center.
Jones testified they filed the suit to keep the agriculture groups from suing them first.
Hutton said they feared that suits filed against the county would eventually mean they would have to deliver fewer services to citizens. She also testified that if they didn't fight this law and it were allowed to go into effect, it could lead to other suits over potential harmful effects of CAFOs related to water and air quality.
Williams added she was angry that fighting these suits could lead to the redirection of tax dollars from other needs in local communities.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Lewis, representing Parson as well as the Air Conservation and Clean Water commissions, argued that the first temporary restraining order issued by Joyce should have been allowed to expire Wednesday because the respondents, the government and ag groups, did not receive notice of the order going into effect. He added that there was no evidence local restrictions would conflict with 391.
Jefferson City attorney Robert Brundage, representing the Cattlemen's Association, Farm Bureau and Pork Association, told Green that keeping the order in place is denying his clients their legal due process. He said they are also being prevented from potential economic opportunities.
Jeffrey closed Friday's proceedings by telling Green if the temporary restraining order is dissolved then the 22 counties that have their own orders in place dealing with CAFOs would be open to suits filed by the agriculture groups.