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Feb. 29, 2024 |  By: Allison Kite - Missouri Independent

Missouri House bill takes aim at ‘cesspool’ of meatpacking sludge


By Allison Kite - Missouri Independent


Between Vallerie Steele, her seven siblings and their children, there’s always a birthday or anniversary to celebrate on the family’s southwest Missouri farm. The summer months are typically a parade of pool parties and barbecues.

Until last year. 

The stench coming from the lagoon across the road from Steele’s home has become unbearable. It holds waste Denali Water Solutions collects from meatpacking plants before spreading it as free fertilizer on farmers’ properties. 

The smell from the “cesspool of rotting flesh” has forced the family inside, she said. 

“Nobody wants to eat a burger or a hot dog if it smells like rotten crap in the air,” Steele said in an interview with The Independent. “It’s just disgusting.”

She tried to stain her porch three times last summer but couldn’t stand to be outside because of the smell. One of her sons was bullied at school because the stench of the lagoon clung to his clothes. Children at her younger son’s combined elementary and middle school beg their teachers to stay inside during recess.

“It literally burns your lungs, your chest,” she said. “I’m an ICU nurse — like, I know this isn’t normal.”

Steele leads a coalition of southwest Missouri residents fighting for more regulation of Denali’s — and similar — lagoons. She implored state lawmakers last month to pass legislation meant to protect rural neighbors and impose more regulations on wastewater sludge haulers.

And on Thursday, the Missouri House voted 151-2 to pass legislation that would require companies like Denali to have water pollution permits and follow certain design requirements for its facilities. 

Facilities like Denali’s would have to be at least 1,000, 2,000 or 4,000 feet from the nearest public building or home depending on the size of the lagoon. And the state would have to establish sampling rules for the basins and require groundwater monitoring in hydrologically sensitive areas.

Sponsored by state Reps. Ed Lewis, a Moberly Republican, and Dirk Deaton, a Noel Republican, the legislation now moves to the Missouri Senate for consideration. The House attached an emergency clause, meaning if it clears the Senate and is signed by the governor the new regulations would go into effect immediately. 

Arkansas-based Denali’s communications director, Samuel Liebl, said in a statement that Lewis and Deaton’s bill would add “excessive and unnecessary costs to food manufacturers and would have negative impacts on the state’s economy and businesses.” 

“While Denali supports revised regulations focused on transparency, we feel strongly the bill voted on in the Missouri House…this week requires significant revisions,” he said.

Liebl said there was “high demand among farmers for food processing residuals due to their valuable nutrients.” 

“Our model allows them to receive them without any added expense, helping keep food costs down for Missouri residents,” he said.

Denali operates three lagoons in McDonald, Newton and Macon counties and built a fourth that has not been filled in Randolph County. Before last fall, it spread meatpacking sludge over 20,000 acres in the state. Farmers that work with Denali can have the sludge spread on their fields as free fertilizer.

But under an agreement with state environmental regulators, the company is currently draining its lagoons until it can obtain a permit to operate.

An abrupt regulatory change 

Until last year, Denali had a permit from the Missouri Fertilizer Control Board, which exempted it from having to get a permit from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. That meant the state’s environmental regulators couldn’t impose any instructions on Denali unless its sludge polluted the state’s waterways, a policy decried by Deaton. 

“Nobody seems to know exactly how it got there — when, why and what for and who thought it was a good idea,” he said. 

But the fertilizer board last year decided it didn’t have authority over Denali because it provides its sludge for free rather than selling it as a commercial fertilizer. Without a fertilizer permit, Denali had to get a permit from the Department of Natural Resources. 

Denali has sued the fertilizer board in an attempt to have its fertilizer permit reinstated. 

After the fertilizer board’s decision, Missouri environmental regulators allowed Denali to keep operating in the interim until, in October, the company applied so much sludge to a field just before it rained that regulators reversed course. 

Following complaints, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources visited a site where Denali had applied waste and found “standing pools of liquids and solids” and such huge quantities of meatpacking and sewage sludge it covered the vegetation on the fields, according to a document from the state. It was expected to rain in the coming days, meaning the sludge could pollute nearby streams.

Under an agreement the state and Denali reached last month, the company is now prohibited from applying waste to fields in Missouri and must start draining its lagoons. It was also ordered to pay $21,665 in fines.

Until Denali receives permits to resume its operations, it has to haul its waste to a treatment facility or take it out of Missouri and apply it to farmland in another state. 

That wasn’t the company’s only violation.

In 2022, it dumped 36 truck loads — or 165,000 gallons — of sludge onto only five acres a day ahead of heavy rains. The waste flowed onto neighboring property and into a waterway.

Denali has received four violations since 2022

Rural neighbors fight back

Around the same time the state investigated Denali in the fall of 2023, Steele and nearby neighbors sued in an attempt to force regulation of the sludge.

The group — Stop Land Use Our Ground and Environment, or S.L.U.D.G.E — argues the state should be treating Denali as a solid waste business and not allow it to spread the material on individuals’ fields. 

Another group called Citizens of Randolph County Against Pollution, or C.R.A.P. is fighting the lagoon Denali constructed in their area but has yet to fill. In September, a judge in that lawsuit prohibited the state from granting a permit to Denali without court permission. 

The outcry from neighbors has gotten so bad that one landowner whose field Denali uses to spread the sludge has been charged with four misdemeanor counts of disturbing the peace.

In a probable cause statement filed in the case, an investigator said 10 residents near one of Denali’s lagoons complained about the “noxious and offensive” odor and reported that they couldn’t stand to be outside. 

“I have also received statements that the smell interferes with efforts to sell houses, therefore, (affecting) their property values,” the probable cause statement says. “One victim stated ‘we feel like hostages in our own home.’” 

Deaton said when he took office in 2019, he was flooded with constituent emails and letters concerned about Denali. 

“We oftentimes say we got hundreds of emails. I don’t know about you; sometimes I wonder— did they really get hundreds of emails?” Deaton said in a committee hearing. “Let me tell you, I’m happy to show you. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails, probably over 1,000 at this point.”

Steele, a member of S.L.U.D.G.E, said the odor had exacerbated neighbors’ asthma and caused kids at the nearby baseball fields to throw up behind dugouts.

“If these people had to dump this stuff in their front yard, they wouldn’t do it,” Steele said. 

Rep. Tim Taylor, a Republican from Bunceton, questioned a lobbyist for Denali in a hearing last month about the contents of the sludge.

“Tell me why in the world a company that’s looking to make a profit would give away a product for free when they can easily charge even a small amount of money and make money,” Taylor said. “To see that, I can’t see it in any other way, except that ‘as long as we don’t charge for it, nobody’s going to ask any questions.’”

The lawsuit is still pending, and S.L.U.D.G.E.’s lawyer, Stephen Jeffery, is fighting for the ability to take samples of the material. Denali and partnering farmers have not complied with Jeffery’s subpoenas. 

Jeffery filed a motion to hold Denali and the farmers in contempt of court for failing to comply with the subpoenas. A hearing on the issue is set for Friday. 

John Hoke, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ water protection program, said the material that comes from meatpacking plants that pay Denali to haul away waste was tested for nutrients and heavy metals under the fertilizer control board.

But once the materials are combined in Denali’s lagoons, it’s less clear what the total composition is. 

“You need to know what nutrients are in that material before you land apply to make sure you’re not causing any negative impacts to the soils,” Hoke said, adding that enhanced monitoring was included as a provision in Denali’s pending permits.

Lewis implored colleagues Thursday to adopt his legislation imposing regulations on Denali and to do so with an emergency clause to allow the bill to take effect quickly.

“It’ll definitely secure our food supply, make that safer,” Lewis said, “but it will also make the rivers and the streams of Missouri safer.”