Meanwhile, back at the farm
In the public dispute over protecting and preserving the Buffalo National River watershed, the corporation behind the controversial industrial hog farm approved near Mount Judea in Newton County has been virtually anonymous.
According to the environmental assessment report filed with the USDA’s Farm Services Agency, the 600-plusacre C&H Hog Farms “will produce hogs for Cargill [Inc.] in up-to-date structures in Newton County.” So now we all know the rest of that story.
The statement adds: “This guaranteed loan [from we the taxpayers] will also benefit the Farm Credit Service of Western Arkansas. FSA’s involvement will negate some of Farm Credit’s risk associated with this loan.”
Topographical maps show the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) with some 6,500 hogs is located near Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo River about 5 miles downstream. The farm’s boundaries also run 0.8 of a mile from the Mount Judea school as the crow flies.
C&H Farms’ owners and primary beneficiaries are publicly listed as Richard, Mary, Phillip and Julie Campbell, along with Jason and Tara Henson (hence Campbell and Henson Farms). Richard Campbell also is listed as a member of the Newton County Quorum Court whose district includes Mount Judea and the expanse of the farm and its fields.
Documents name Lonnie D. Ewing and Martha Gafford as the FSA officials who prepared and approved the agency’s findings. Ewing told me he helped produce the disputed environmental assessment for the loan and its finding of having “no significant impact” to the environment.
He also acknowledged being married to the former Teresa Campbell of Newton County whom, he added, is “only distantly related” to the Campbell family involved in the farm. He told me he wasn’t certain of their precise familial connections.
Ewing explained he hadn’t seen or associated with members of the Campbell extended family in years before the farm’s loan papers were submitted for his review and approval. Therefore, he perceived having not even a potential conflict of interest in personally managing the environmental assessment.
Newton County Judge Warren Campbell is not listed as having an interest in the farm.
I asked widely respected Ed Fite of Oklahoma, the administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and a former national leader in state and local river conservation programs, his opinion of Cargill’s decision to back the farm in such an environmentally sensitive location.
“The Cargill folks are most likely building the new farm adhering to all local, state and federal regulations,” he said. “Yet, in the court of public opinion, they’re making a really poor choice. There will be dire ramifications for years to come.
“I just can’t fathom why a company would risk such [a venture]. The Buffalo River is a national natural resources treasure likened to the Grand Canyon. Cargill has made a bad decision,” he added.
Seems to me there are plenty of potential locations across Arkansas for an industrial hog farm other than in the Buffalo River watershed.
Meanwhile, Don Nelms, a politically active businessman living in Newton County who has served on two governors’ staffs (including Mike Beebe’s), said Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Teresa Marks told him in a telephone conversation last month that “she wasn’t aware the permit for the C&H CAFO had even been issued until after the fact.”
“I asked Ms. Marks three different times if she knew about this permit for the farm before it was issued, and she answered each time that she did not,” said Nelms. “I had called her because I knew her personally from my position on the governor’s staff and felt like I could speak freely with her. I asked why she hadn’t let me know about this before it was complete.”
Nelms added: “I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe some agency head knew nothing about this kind of industrial farm. Well, in my opinion, she should have known about it and realized there were enough reasons not to do it. She also told me she had no power to stop the permit. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but knowing previous agency heads, I can’t believe that’s true.”
Marks said she had indeed spoken with Nelms. And although she knew about the new general permit for CAFOs issued statewide at the time, the C&H Farms request for a specific permit was a different story.
“I personally was not aware of the [farm’s] notice of intent until after it was filed with the Water Division in our office,” she said. “We receive hundreds of applications each year to proceed under the terms of one or another general permit in the department and the individual notices are normally handled at the division level.”
Marks explained that there was no legal reason for her agency to deny the C&H request since the proposed farm met the requirements and there’s no state law banning CAFOs in the Buffalo River watershed.
I’m still wondering why such a law wasn’t passed years ago, and how our state could have even considered allowing this industrial farm to be permitted in that sacred place many call God’s Country.
All further examples of our gatekeeping government at the highest bureaucratic levels inadequately protecting and preserving the precious natural treasures of Arkansas. Whooo pig!
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com. Read his blog at mikemastersonsmessenger.com.