In the many states where corporate pork farming is big business these days, the only thing messier than vast lagoons of hog waste is writing a law to regulate them. Industry opposition is so fierce, and the lobbying so intense, that many proposals, like the hogs themselves, go to slaughter.
This was not the case this year in Oklahoma, and state Senator Paul Muegge had a lot to do with that. Muegge authored the strictest set of hog regulations in the country, and guided it through the legislature. Although the measure was popular with the public, the industry's clout made passage a tough feat in an election year. "It was too hot politically," says Keith Smith, a Sierra Club lobbyist. "Everybody knew there would be big money coming in that could take them out at election time."
Muegge, however, gladly carried the hog bill, as well as a first-of-its-kind bill regulating waste from chicken farms. A longtime family rancher, Muegge was innately suspicious of the corporations that are taking over many of Oklahoma's farms. And while none of the big outfits are in his district, Muegge empathized with neighbors of the hog farms, who complain of the waste's hideous odor and risks to groundwater. After all, Muegge himself was left in a similar situation in the mid-1980s, when plans were made, unsuccessfully it turned out, to put a hazardous waste dump near his farm.
While Muegge today is the Senate's dean of environmental issues, there was still a certain irony in his picking this fight. Three decades ago, he went to Washington, D.C., as a sheep industry lobbyist, fighting for the rights of ranchers such as himself to do as they pleased on their own land. It was after Muegge won a legislative battle over the agricultural use of toxic chemicals that he realized the tide was changing. "We won the battle with these environmental folks, but we were not going to win the war," Muegge remembers. "We started meeting with the environmental groups and found we had more in common with them than differences. It was time. We couldn't exempt ourselves from environmental regulation anymore."
As for the hog bill, there were many who thought that Muegge, who is not known as an aggressive legislator, would get run over. But backed by legislative leaders and the governor, Muegge held firm. The bill went through nearly two dozen rewrites, but emerged much tougher than many expected it would. It requires new hog farms to be set back from neighboring properties, mandates water and soil testing, and assesses large farms a 32-cent-per-hog fee to underwrite the new regulations.
As the hog lobbyists see it, Muegge unfairly shut them out of a grossly one-sided process. Muegge counters that his door was open, but that the industry thought it could kill the bill by circumventing him. In any case, it is clear that the industry did not get the last word as it has in the past. "Last session, Tyson's and Seaboard were invited in to write a bill," says one person involved in the negotiations. "This year, Muegge had those guys in for a culture shock. They had input, but they didn't get to write the bill."
In the long run, Muegge's roll in the mud with the hog industry may end up costing him. Some say Muegge burned bridges with pro-hog members of the agriculture committee, of which he is chairman, and with some farmers' associations that opposed the bill. Moreover, the hog industry is heavily backing his opponent in this month's election, making this the toughest race of Muegge's eight-year Senate career. "Muegge is one of those few politicians who say, `I have to do what I have to do,'" Smith says. "He may have made some enemies, but I'm sure he smiles when he looks at himself in the mirror."
Photo by Keith Ball