Just Keep Swimming?

An authorization of wastewater discharge would threaten a recreational river. 

Taking a dip in the cool turquoise riverways of Missouri is a summer tradition cherished by state residents. Just as clean water is a right, so is safe recreation and the enjoyment of the natural beauty of our state. And when our waterways are threatened by pollution, not only is the river ecosystem compromised, but human health is at risk.  

Recently, Missouri Prime Beef Packers, a cattle production and beef processing facility located in Pleasant Hope, proposed to discharge 350,000 gallons per day of their waste directly into the Pomme de Terre River. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources issued a Water Quality and Antidegradation Review to assess the plan and determine the effluent limits for discharge. However, the proposed effluent limits are concerning, considering the facility’s history of compliance violations and proposed use of experimental waste treatment technology. In addition, authorizing additional pollution into the river may violate the law. 

Great Rivers attorney Ethan Thompson, on behalf of Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club Missouri Chapter, submitted comments on the Review to DNR. 

As the comments stress, “Prime Beef Packers has a troubling record of water permit violations that brings into question the Facility’s ability to abide by effluent limits.” In the last 10 years, the facility has received nine letters of warning and 14 notices of violation. Four of these notices of violation and one letter have been issued since June of 2021. The facility has also consistently failed to submit timely Discharge Monitoring Reports as recently as the first quarter of 2023. As the comments assert, the consistency of these violations “demonstrates that the Company has and will continue to flagrantly violate the law as long as there are no significant consequences.” A company that consistently fails to abide by the law should not be granted new opportunities to pollute the environment.

The facility proposes using unidentified microorganisms to treat wastewater. (Image source: Canva.) 

In addition, how the effluent limits are determined is unclear, as the dataset(s) and methods used in the Review were not provided in the Review posted for public comment. As the comments stress, “it is therefore difficult for the public to assess the protective ability of the proposed effluent limits,” especially as “the Review does not spell out monitoring requirements and does not include any reporting requirements.” Pomme de Terre was recently proposed for listing by the Department as impaired for E coli, making it critical that further discharge is not approved without informed data review. 

Equally concerning is the Company’s proposed use of an experimental technology called iLeaf to treat its waste. The technology proposes using unnamed microorganisms to treat wastewater in holding lagoons, however, scant information on iLeaf is uncovered both in the Review and through Internet searches. The one mention of iLeaf being used at an unnamed facility in Arkansas provides no insight into its effectiveness nor gives its length of time in use. With the proprietary nature of the technology obscuring much information on the nature of the microorganisms used in the iLeaf process, “Commentators are concerned that the presence of these microorganisms in the discharge could have negative effects on wildlife” as well as on the river’s recreational use. Even if the mysterious microorganisms are not harmful, it is unclear whether iLeaf will be able to adequately treat identified contaminants, as “iLeaf’s ability to treat several contaminants of concern [is] unquantified in the Review.”   

In the event of an iLeaf failure, chlorine would be used to treat contaminants. However, chlorine itself damages the river, and the Review admits that “there is no practicable way to monitor for Total Residual Chlorine at a level that meets the calculated effluent limits.”  

The Company’s historical and current noncompliance with monitoring and reporting, combined with their use of experimental technology, is a recipe for pollution. The potential pollution would have very real consequences for citizens who use the Pomme de Terre for recreational activities. According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to E coli can cause severe stomach cramps, fever, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. As the Commentators assert, “Facilities with this type of disregard for the law are not the type of facilities where the Department should be permitting additional discharges and allowing the use of untested technology to meet effluent standards,” especially when health is at stake. 

The Pomme de Terre is currently used for recreational purposes by the public, with an important fish habitat downstream. (Image source: Canva.)

Perhaps most thought-provoking is the Commenters’ questioning of the very basis of authorizing such a discharge. The Department has a “responsibility to protect water quality from degradation under the Missouri Clean Water Law,” yet alternatives to authorizing the discharge are not adequately evaluated in the Review. One such alternative would be acquiring additional land for land application. Moreover, “it is unclear from the Review why the Company cannot simply reduce operational capacity in order to comply with current permit obligations.”  

Great Rivers, MCE and the Sierra Club Missouri Chapter have requested a public hearing to resolve the issues raised in the comments and local concerns about the safety of recreational use of the Pomme de Terre. “If it is truly impracticable for the Facility to find an alternative to discharge, then the Department should explain this to the public at a public hearing.” Summer swimmers should worry about sunburns, not E coli

Eva Kappas is a student at Brown University studying International and Public Affairs and Hispanic Studies. A native St. Louisan, Eva is invested in protecting the people and places she calls home. She is excited by the potential to transform our electrical grid with renewable energy. In her free time, she can be found running in Forest Park, writing short stories, and practicing Spanish with her friends and family.

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