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When The Well Runs Dry

More Headaches than Hams

by Roger Allison
Howard County, Missouri

Judging from the citizen outrage of the last year, it appears that the well of public support has run dry for Missouri's newfangled corporate swine industry. The majority of negative press about Big Swine has centered around water quality and the spills of hog excrement by Premium Standard and Continental Grain. Premium Standard's repeated spills and fish kills didn't mend many fences. Continental's intentional and accidental discharges and other shenanigans earned them a class action nuisance suit by over seventy neighboring families across three counties.

Much less reported, but no less harmful, has been Big Swine's assault on the state's water quantity. Staggering volumes of water are needed to operate the new factory style mega-farms, and they'll stop at nothing to get it. To understand what this industry's resource consumption means to Missouri, let's look at the numbers.

A typical Premium Standard 80,000 head finishing unit consumes over 200,000 gallons of water per day. Every day of the year. That's over 73 million gallons per year for just one complex. Now multiply that number by Premium Standard's 17 complexes. Then add the over 365 million gallons per year at their slaughter plant. And the water consumption at their feed mills, concrete plants and the pumpdown operations at 127 lagoons. Now, multiply that number by the totals at Continental Grain's five sprawling operations. And multiply that by Murphy's four swine cities. And Tyson's. And Farmland's. And Cargill's. And....whoa! You do the math.

So, how do the Water Hogs get this much resource? Where possible, corporate ag just taps into the public's source and lets municipal or rural users help pay the tab (as in Sedalia, Milan, Princeton, and their wells, lakes and surrogate public water districts). If that good ol' corporate welfare doesn't work out, they resort to a variety of methods to get their long, cool drink.

In northern Missouri, Premium Standard built a network of two dozen unauthorized lakes, some over 100 surface acres, illegally impounding over five billion gallons annually from Missouri waterways. The lakes have dried up several significant headwater streams, destroying aquatic habitat and its associated wildlife. At 34' 9", the dams deftly skirted state regulations by three inches. The corporation chose to ignore the Federal Clean Water Act.

Finally, the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have caught the scent and are working to undo the damage, requiring Premium to discharge flows from some of the impoundments. The Feds' investigation is continuing.

In mid and western Missouri, deep wells into underground lakes called aquifers are favored by the factory farms. But intensive consumption by Continental, Murphy and Tyson has neighbors' wells running dry and citizens seeing red.

In Vernon County, folks are blaming Murphy for a drastic drop in the underground water table. "There are seventeen wells in this area that have dried up," reports resident Joyce Maynard. "We've tried to work with Murphy Farms but all we get is delays and denials." Concerned citizens near Continental's wells in Daviess and Harrison counties have also demanded action. Finally, the Department of Natural Resources has installed monitoring devices in all three counties in an effort to track the situation.

In Pettis County, rural families are lodging similar complaints after the completion of the dubious Tyson well project. Citizens have had to drill as deep as 520 feet to alleviate the new water shortage though this has done nothing to eliminate problems with odor and taste. Letters to the editor strike a simple refrain, "We just want what is rightfully ours -- water back in our wells."

Resource depletion by the corporate swine industry is not just Missouri's problem. The call of tall corn and the prairie aquifers have lured herds of Big Swine to the fruited Great Plains. But backlash over exploitation of limited resources has water squabbles bubbling up all across the Midwest.

Edwards County, Kansas: A threatened incursion by Murphy turns the county into a pivotal battleground over water. The county is preparing to sue if necessary to stop water "mining" by outside interests. Kit Carson County, Colorado: State officials deny 24 of 25 well permits for Midwest Farms due to concerns over continued viability of the aquifer.

Texas County, Oklahoma: An explosion of Seaboard swine factories has local residents fuming. The 60 foot aquifer dropped 2.5 feet last year and the resource faces depletion within a generation.

In addition, Japanese owned swine consortiums are involved in water grabs near Wheatland, Wyoming and Perryton, Texas.

It is true that ours is the water planet; its surface nearly 75% water. But, of all of the water on this Earth, only .0003 percent is available for human consumption. The rest is locked in glaciers, saline or polluted. We simply don't have enough to share with a "new era", "high tech" industry that produces more headaches than hams.

In Missouri, the Big Four pig producers, Premium Standard, Continental Grain, Murphy and Tyson, are responsible for a list of problems that urgently ask us what we get in return for this water grab. Among them: unspeakable odor, deflation of property values, ruination of family hog producers (19% exited just last year), social upheaval, increased crime and violent crime, unprecedented welfare rolls, degradation of local infrastructure, and unabashed abuse of corporate welfare.

Missourians and their leadership need to reassess their commitment to our state's precious water resources. If we don't, you may find this story coming to a tap near you.

Roger Allison is a family farmer from Howard County and the executive director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 12, 1996.

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