Agency sticks with its OK for hog farm
LR lawyer says response to letter not good enough
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is standing by its 2012 decision to issue an operational permit to C&H Hog Farms, the large-scale concentrated animal-feeding operation in Mount Judea.
In a May 15 letter to the department, Little Rock lawyer Hank Bates claimed the farm’s permit application was flawed and should be revoked until several “omissions, errors and misrepresentations” were addressed by the department and the farm owners. The letter included documentation for a half-dozen purported inconsistencies in the application’s nutrient management plan, the 263-page document that details the farm’s design and plan for safely disposing of the manure of about 2,500 sows and as many as 4,000 piglets at any given time.
Bates sent the letter on behalf of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a coalition of several environmental and economic advocacy organizations that have voiced concern about the impact of potential water and air pollution from the hog barn for several months. Bates, a partner at the firm Carney, Bates & Pulliam, said he was not being paid for work done on behalf of the alliance.
In a response signed by department director Teresa Marks and sent to Bates Wednesday and publicly issued Thursday, the department addressed some of the concerns raised in Bates’ letter.
In his letter, Bates said soil tests performed by the University of Arkansas Soil Testing and Research Laboratory indicated that the majority of the 630 acres surrounding the C&H Hog Farms production facility, upon which the facility operators plan to spread hog waste as fertilizer for warm-season grasses, were already saturated with phosphorus. The farm’s nutrient management plan later states that “[b]ased on current soil tests, there are no fields at this time that are identified as having high and/or very high soil phosphorous (P) levels.”
The department’s response says that terms used in assessing a soil’s nutrient levels such as “optimal” or “above optimal” refer to the amount of a given nutrient needed to successfully grow a given crop.
“[T]he optimum and above optimum soil phosphorus levels are indicative of the agronomic viability of the land application site,” the department’s letter says. “The permit does not limit application based solely on agronomic rates but … is one of many site specific factors and management practices included in the [phosphorus]-index.”
The department’s response does not address the contradiction between the soil-test results and the statement that none of the farm’s fields is high in phosphorus.
In streams, excessive levels of phosphorus can cause algae blooms, clouding waterways while choking off other aquatic life dependent on sunshine.
Bates’ letter also raises the concern that the nutrient management plan does not list the flooding probability for four of the 17 fields that make up the farm’s 630 spreadable acres. Those portions of the planning worksheet instead read “#N/A.” The soil maps included with the nutrient management plan identify these fields, which lay adjacent to Big Creek, a major tributary to the Buffalo National River, as prone to “occasional flooding.”
The department’s response identifies the use of “#N/A” in other portions of the plan as a simple problem of data-entry error, but does not make direct reference to the use of “#N/A” in the flooding probability estimation for the four fields.
The department also explained that while flooding frequency is factored into the permitting process, propensity for flooding does not necessarily disqualify an area of land for use when spreading manure.
Bates’ letter also expresses concerns that the nutrient management plan inaccurately estimated how much phosphorus will be lost from the hog manure between collection and distribution over the farm’s fields. The plan estimates that 80 percent of the phosphorus content in the manure will be lost before being applied to the land, but Bates contended that most of the nutrient content will simply become concentrated at the bottom of the waste lagoons but eventually spread with the rest of the manure.
The department’s response says that the farm operators plan to agitate the lagoons, removing waste solids and applying them as part of the manure mixture to five fields, four of which are the fields where the flooding frequency was not properly identified elsewhere in the nutrient management plan. The department’s response does not state how often the lagoon holding the waste solids will be agitated.
Other concerns in Bates’ letter go unaddressed in the department’s response. These include the nutrient management plan’s use of nitrogen-based analysis for one portion of the farm (again, the same four fields mentioned above) instead of the phosphorus-based analysis used for the rest of the farm’s 630 spreadable acres, and the plan’s recommendation to apply 57 pounds of phosphorus per acre, per application, over the entire acreage, while the university soil test results recommend applying no phosphorous to most of the area.
The department’s response concludes by saying that the department does not agree with Bates’ assertion that C&H Hog Farm’s operational permit should be revoked, based on the information included in his letter.
Bates said Thursday that the department had failed to adequately address the concerns raised in his letter.
“[The Environmental Quality Department’s] response to our letter enumerating the inadequacies in the C&H Hog Farms permitting process undefined specifically the Nutrient Management Plan undefined is really a non-response,” Bates said via e-mail. “[The department’s] response inspires little to no confidence that the agency will be enforcing the permit and protecting the Buffalo River as this factory farm ramps up operations.”
Katherine Benenati, a spokesman for the Environmental Quality Department, said Thursday that department staff members were working to further address unanswered questions in Bates’ letter.
Bates said that he is scheduled to meet with Environmental Quality Department representatives June 7.