State grilled over permit for hog farm
Crowd vocal, at times riled about fears for watershed
By Ryan McGeeney
JASPER - The director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said controversy over the agency’s approval of a permit for C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea is among the most emotional she’s dealt with since she was appointed to the position in 2007.
Teresa Marks made the remark after about an hour and a half of public comment and debate Wednesday about the farm, a large-scale concentrated animal-feedingoperation 6 miles upstream from Big Creek’s confluence with the Buffalo National River. Many remarks were direct rebukes of Marks and her staff for issuing the permits for the farm’s construction near Big Creek.
One commenter told Marks that she was lucky that she and her staff weren’t elected officials because they would likely be “out of a job this time next year.”
“I knew, coming up here, that there were extremely strong feelings on bothsides of this issue,” Marks said. “What we wanted to do was take it out of the realm of emotion and put it more in the realm of science.”
The public meeting, held at the Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp. building in Jasper, was the second of two gatherings Wednesday dedicated to the topic. Marks’ meeting and the one that preceded it - a panel discussion organized by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance at Jasper’s Buffalo Theater - were raucous, standing-room-only events, with audience members at times heckling and shouting down opposing viewpoints.
At least 120 people attended the alliance meeting, which began with a video lecture concerning the health and environmental impacts of confined animal-feeding operations in other parts of the country, especially North Carolina, and a brief explanation of karst geology. Karst, which underlies much of Newton County, consists of soluble rock, including limestone, and is distinguished by caves, sinkholes and other features that sometimes allow nutrients and pollutants to make their way into groundwater.
Health impacts that have been tied to concentrated animal-feeding operations include asthma linked to breathing particles of animal waste and hemoglobin deficiencies linked to high nitrite levels in drinking water, according to information from the video.
Panel members at the alliance meeting included Mike Dougherty, president of the Buffalo River Chamber of Commerce; James Lasseter, a Topeka, Kan., physician who said he owns property near Mount Judea; Andrea Radwell, an ecological sciences expert; and Emily Jones, senior program manager of the National Parks ConservationAssociation’s southeast regional office.
“You’ve got a bunch of battle lines drawn here,” Jones told the audience. “This is going to be about economics, about community values, about convincing decision-makers that a sustainable community is what they’re going to represent.”
Members of the alliance have voiced concern about the environment and the economy of the river area if hog waste gets into surface water within the Buffalo National River watershed.
“The Buffalo River can be raging waters, or almost completely dry,” Radwell said. “The organisms there have to adapt, so we have some of the most unique fauna - organisms found nowhere else in the world.
“That fraction of life is what everything else is dependent on. We can’t always see it, but we know that the rest of life on Earth is completely dependent on it. If the Buffalo River is damaged, there’ll be many organisms we never recognize, and it will be a huge loss of biodiversity in North America and the world.”
Dougherty said he was angry when he first learned about the farm’s construction, although the anger wasn’t directed at the farm’s ownersand operators - Jason Henson or his cousins, Philip and Richard Campbell.
“We see the [farm] as a victim, no less than anyone else out here,” Dougherty said.
Those farmers “are small-business people, and they should be admired for trying to make a buck. Should they make a buck on Big Creek? I don’t think so. But they’re doing the best they can, and I respect them.”
Dougherty said the state and federal permitting process is useless if it doesn’t take into account surrounding structures and the environment.
“If you’re going to wrap a hog farm around a small village, there’s something deeply wrong with the regulation process,” Dougherty said.
Public debate over C&H Hog Farms has grown since January when Buffalo National River Superintendent Kevin Cheri voiced anger that park officials weren’t consulted when the Farm Service Agency branch in Little Rock conducted an environmental assessment of the Mount Judea area.
The agency found that the farm would have “no significant impact” on the area’s environment, but Cheri’s staff has argued that the assessment was incomplete and inaccurate. The farm, which iscontracted with Cargill Inc., has federal and state permits to house about 2,500 fullgrown sows and as many as 4,000 piglets.
Most people at the alliance meeting seemed to be squarely against allowing production at C&H Hog Farms to continue and eager for an avenue to nullify the owners’ permits.
The crowd at the Environmental Quality Department meeting, however, was more divided, with some people peppering the department’s representatives with pointed questions about the permitting processes and others making statements in support of the farm owners.
Bob Shofner, a Newton County farmer, took his turn at the microphone and implored the crowd to be patient with the families running C&H Hog Farms.
“One thing I wanted to talk to everybody about is that in this country you are innocent until proven guilty. And this young farm family has definitely had a problem of everybody accusing them of doing something that has not even happened yet,” Shofner said. “I guarantee you this farm will be monitored better than any other farm in the state of Arkansas, any other farm in the [United States]. What I’m saying is let this family do what they need to do.”
People in the crowd of atleast 150 repeatedly asked Marks why the department hadn’t made more of an effort to alert the public regarding the farm owners’ application for operation permits. Also, they asked why the department would allow such an operation within the Buffalo National River watershed.
Marks said department staff members had acted within the regulatory constraints of Arkansas law. The department posted notification of the permit application on its website for 30 days beginning June 25, 2012, but no other publication of the notice was made or required.
Marks also stressed that there is no regulatory basis for special treatment of applications because of their proximity to the Buffalo National River.
“We issue general permits all over the state,” Marks said. “We don’t have the authority to treat [the Buffalo National River watershed] differently.”
Marks said the Legislature has the power to enact laws to protect the river.
“There are people out there that don’t want those extra protections in the Buffalo River watershed. They’re citizens too. So these are things that have to be decided by your duly elected representatives. We can’t, as a regulatory agency, make that type of prohibition,” Marks said.
A lawsuit may be filed challenging the Farm Service Agency’s environmental assessment of the farm site. On May 6, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental litigation organization, sent a notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Service Agency’s branch offices in Washington, D.C., and Little Rock.
The notice, which serves as a 60-day warning to the agencies, is the first step in a potential suit alleging that the agency did not collaborate with other agencies, including the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while drafting the environmental assessment of the farm’s building site. It also intends to allege that the agency failed to account for several endangered species in the area.
If the environmental assessment is found to have been improperly executed, it could invalidate the farm’s operational permits.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association and the Ozark Society are all named as potential plaintiffs in the suit.
Hannah Chang, a litigator with Earthjustice, said the organization was waiting on a response from the USDA before deciding whether to proceed.