Hog-farm rule for watershed given hearing
Proposal rewritten to allow legislators to revisit it in ’20
By Emily Walkenhorst
Posted: July 7, 2015 at 4:45 a.m.
A joint meeting of the Legislature's Public Health, Welfare and Labor committees reviewed with no objection Monday a proposal to ban new medium or large hog farms in the Buffalo National River watershed for the next five years.
The joint committee, which met Monday morning on state Capitol grounds, declined twice in 2014 to declare the hog farm ban "reviewed." Review is a required part of the rule-making process.
The issue faces a few more steps before the rule can be adopted.
The initial rule proposed a permanent ban on medium and large hog farms in the watershed as a means of protecting the area's environment and was supported by former Gov. Mike Beebe.
But legislators criticized the rule for not accounting for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture study of the effect on water quality of C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea -- the hog farm that spawned criticism, changes to public notice on hog-farm applications in the watershed and the proposal of the rule being considered Monday.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson's staff met with sponsors of the permanent ban -- the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Ozark Society -- and suggested reducing the ban to five years with the option to make it permanent later.
After the hearing, an attorney for the rule-making groups, Sam Ledbetter, said he believed the governor's support was instrumental in making the review finally happen.
"That's been very helpful," he said. Ledbetter is an attorney at McMath Woods.
Before the rule went to a hearing Monday, legislators suggested that the rule be changed further to require the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality director to initiate rule-making procedures in five years to either delete the ban entirely from agency regulations or to adopt it permanently. The change essentially ensures lawmakers will have decision-making power on the rule five years after its adoption instead of now.
On Monday, after asking a few questions, legislators raised no objections to reviewing the rule.
Both changes to the rule were key factors in getting it reviewed, said Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers.
"We have paid for a report from the University of Arkansas, and I think it's really important that we look at the report to see what the science is before making decisions," she said after Monday's meeting.
Bledsoe also said legislative oversight of the rule down the road was important for accountability in the rule-making process and with Arkansans who voted for last fall's ballot initiative requiring legislative review of agency rule-making.
"I think it went well," she said of Monday's meeting.
The review means the rule can now go before the Rules and Regulations Committee. The committee will consider the rule for review and then report its decision to Legislative Council, which would then accept the report.
Should the rule be successfully reviewed, it would move back to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission for final adoption.
The commission is made up of state agency and gubernatorial appointments and is the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's appellate body. It approved the initiation of the rule in April 2014 and subsequently approved three six-month bans on hog-farm permits in the watershed until the rule-making was resolved.
Banning medium and large hog farms means no new facility can have more than 750 swine weighing 55 pounds nor more than 3,000 swine weighing less than 55 pounds.
C&H Hog Farms along Big Creek, 6 miles from where it meets the Buffalo River, is permitted to hold up to 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets at a time. It was awarded an expedited general permit in late 2012 with little public input.
Although approval of the hog farm became a flash point for change at the state level, the farm would not be affected by the rule, even if it falls out of compliance with its permit, because it is in active permit status at the time of the rule-making, said Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Ryan Benefield.
In the five years of the rule being in place, however, the facility would not be able to expand.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked if recent heavy rains had led to failures of the hog waste ponds at the farm, referencing concern from environmental groups that severe weather could cause the lagoons to fail.
Benefield said the lagoons had not failed.
After the meeting, Ledbetter reiterated that catastrophic lagoon failures haven't happened in Arkansas but that they have happened in other states, damaging waters.
Environmental groups are also concerned that hog manure applied to fields in the watershed would run off or filter into nearby waterways and accumulate in too-high levels, damaging the river.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture study is measuring runoff, in addition to the effect of rainfall on the hog farm's lagoons.
The study has been funded for the next four years as a part of the state budget approved by the Legislature this spring.
The Buffalo National River -- the country's first national river -- is a popular tourist spot, with more than 1.3 million visitors in 2014 who spent about $56.6 million at area businesses, according to National Park Service data.
Since the debate began over C&H Hog Farms in 2013, pork producers have not applied for permits for medium or large hog farms in the watershed, with Cargill -- involved with nearly all of the state's hog farms -- instituting a self-imposed permanent ban on hog farms in the watershed. Cargill owns the C&H Hog Farms' hogs.
Metro on 07/07/2015