Sheila Harris: A license to pollute?

In 1903, my great-grandmother was orphaned at age 10 by the typhoid fever that killed her parents and a sibling, and the hand-dug well on the family’s farm was suspected to be the source of the water-borne bacteria.

According to CDC statistics, in 1900, typhoid fever killed 100 of every 100,000 residents in the United States. With awareness of the disease’s sewage-related origin, we’ve made some strides since then. By 1960, the rate of typhoid fever had dropped to less than one case per 100,000 residents in the US. In 1972, with the enactment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act — embedded by Missouri statute into Chapter 644 of the Clean Water Law — sewage regulations tightened up. Since then, many of us have taken clean drinking water for granted.

Sadly, we can no longer do that. Now, 52 years after the Clean Water Law’s enactment, attempts are being made to roll back the calendar.

Legislation has been introduced in both the Missouri House and Senate which could undermine the quality of our drinking and recreational waters in southwest Missouri.

Missouri Senate Bill 981 and House Bill 1691 seek to modify the definition of Waters of the State to exclude current language which provides protection to “all surface and subsurface water.” With that exclusion, much of Missouri’s groundwater — the source for most of southwest Missouri’s drinking water — would no longer be protected, unless it could be proven that it was adjacent to, or connected to, a more visible or recognized body of water. That stipulation could leave most Ozarks residents out, since our karst underlayment allows groundwater to flow freely without visible connections to surface water features.

Case in point: Roaring River Spring. Dye-tracing tests to determine the extent of the spring’s recharge basin have been underway for several years. So far, injected dyes from as far as 14 miles away are showing up in the spring.

Another proposed piece of legislation, House Bill 2561, seeks to modify the definition of a water contaminant source by removing “nonpoint sources” from the Clean Water Law’s current language. “Non-point sources” define most farming operations, where there is no obvious single point of effluent discharge (as opposed to poultry processing plants and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, called “point sources”).

If you’re a small farmer, this change in language might at first seem appealing. However, consider that non-point sources of possible water contamination can include the land-application of fertilizers, processing waste residuals and manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

While human sewage was a predominant concern when the Clean Water law was enacted in 1972, today, chemicals, industrial waste and CAFO doo-doo are taking precedence.

A question worth asking is who profits from the removal of proposed groundwater protections? The short answer: corporate agricultural operations who don’t want to mess with the repercussions of violating rules.

The sponsoring legislators of these proposed bills represent constituencies north of the Missouri River, where corn and soybean crops helped push Missouri to the position of number two biodiesel producer in the nation in 2021, with ethanol production not far behind.

District 51 Representative Kurtis Gregory (R-Marshall), who introduced HB 2561, raises corn and soybeans, himself, on 1,100 acres. Tellingly, Gregory is a member of the Missouri Corn Growers, and once sat on their Board of Directors. That influential organization is now lobbying for the passage of Gregory’s sponsored bill.

The removal of water protections in Missouri could result in the quagmire in which the state of Iowa now finds itself. One of the most prolific corn and soybean producers in the world in relation to its size, Iowa’s soil is being depleted from erosion and overproduction, and its waters — including recreational waters — are polluted by nitrates from fertilizer runoff and the bacteria from the 108 billion pounds of manure that the state’s largely unregulated CAFOs produce each year.

Des Moines alone spends $10K daily to remove nitrates from its drinking water, a cost passed on to residents. Its cancer rates, too, are soaring.

The enactment of the Clean Water Law in 1972 was a win for Missourians, but, with the current shenanigans in Jefferson City, if we’re not vigilant, we’ll lose the gains that were made.

Sheila Harris is a long-time Barry County resident and a sales executive and investigative reporter for the Cassville Democrat with a particular interest in environmental topics. She may be reached at

One comment

  1. Sheila, this article was passed on to me as I will also pass it along to other concerned citizens. Where I live, west of Anderson, Mo., McDonald County,
    we’ve been fighting the sludging onslaught by Bub’s and Denali bringing dangerous wastes from Arkansas, applied to land as fertilizer, encouraged by our state legislature and The Missouri Fertilizer Control Board.
    Our county has been brave and resourceful enough, along with other counties around us, to secure a Cease and Desist order temporarily for the rampant sludging. Thank you so much for keeping others informed. Maria

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