The Tri-State Mining District, comprising adjacent portions of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, is generally thought to be out of business, other than for its massive legacy of environmental damage, notably the Tar Creek Superfund site, but also involving water and soil contamination in several counties in all three states.
But mining continues with no royalties being paid. The mineral is groundwater, exported not as “pigs” of lead, but as chickens and eggs. A major portion of the groundwater drawn from the Ozark aquifer in several Southwest Missouri counties is used for the production and processing of poultry. In addition, a significant amount of irrigation in Southwest Missouri is for growing small grains that are primarily sold to mills to be made into chicken feed.
The Ozark aquifer has been a prolific producer of drinking water of high quality. The Ozark aquifer is deeper than the Springfield aquifer, which is contaminated in the areas where there was extensive mining of lead and zinc. These two aquifers are separated by layers of rock that vary in thickness and integrity, so that there is only limited flow from the Springfield aquifer into the Ozark aquifer. The magnitude of the actual communication between these aquifers is extremely difficult to assess because of a lack of data.
While we often think of groundwater as a renewable resource, because to some extent in the Ozarks surface water seeps back into the aquifers, the reality is that we cannot rely on adequate recharge of the Ozark aquifer at today’s rates of withdrawal. Shallower aquifers are less productive of water and are often polluted.
A study (WHPA Final Report, page 25) performed for Missouri-American Water Company indicated that drawdown of the Ozark aquifer would increase the potential that lead and cadmium contamination from the shallower Springfield aquifer would leak into the Ozark aquifer.
Under Missouri law, groundwater is a public resource. No state agency allocates groundwater. The total volume of groundwater withdrawn is not known with any degree of certainty. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources enforces regulations regarding the design of public water supply wells and requires sampling and testing of water from them. But thousands of wells are not classified as public water supply wells.
DNR also requires that data be submitted for all wells when they are drilled. DNR asks for data on those who use 100,000 gallons per year, but actual reporting is spotty. DNR’s Water Resources Center attempts to estimate the amount of groundwater withdrawn by using data submitted voluntarily and through the use of monitoring wells that transmit water level data.
A poultry processing plant uses hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year. Tyson Foods disclosed that its largest plant, in Sedalia, Missouri, used 741 million gallons in 2005, before implementing additional conservation measures, including re-use of water.
Monett’s industrial users, several of which are poultry processing plants, use 650 million gallons per year, while its 7,200 residential users consume about 350 million gallons per year (these numbers are rough calculations from 2005 data included on page 2-4 of a 2006 report made by Black & Veatch to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is made available on the Tri-State Water Coalition website).
All these numbers raise legal and economic questions having to do with the inevitable trade-off between jobs and environmental and perhaps social degradation. If groundwater is owned by all of us, how should it be allocated? Should it be free for the pumping? What kind of economy do we want? What kind of governmental regulation do we need?
The reason that the poultry-raising and processing industry is in the western Ozarks is because we have a suitable climate and other factors, including cheap and plentiful water. We have agricultural land and farmers who can produce grain on it managing the drought risk with irrigation. Other land is cheap enough to allow poultry houses. Our regulatory climate is relatively lax, with little zoning regulation that would exclude poultry houses, and our political sentiment is overwhelmingly against land-use regulation, especially for agriculture. Property taxes are low. Adequate housing is available at the costs that poultry-plant workers can afford.
The poultry industry produces a lot of income for the people of the Ozarks, in addition to providing food for local consumption and markets for corn, milo and other products. It has also spurred in-migration, putting heavy burdens on our providers of education, health-care, law enforcement, and other social services.
The lead and zinc mining industries produced a lot of income and population growth for a time, but left us with degraded water and soils and a labor surplus. Will the legacy of the poultry industry be different?