Geoscientist: CAFO a no-no
If you were responsible for permitting an industrial hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed along Big Creek, would you ask an expert to analyze what kind of drainage to expect from tons of swine waste applied atop the porous limestone of what geologists know as the Boone Formation?
And what if you didn’t do that and later were told the estimated odds of such contamination was 90 percent?
It seems like just prudent due diligence that any state would consult with an expert on groundwater circulation through the karst of the Boone Formation in Newton County before issuing a permit for a concentrated animal feeding operation in such an environmentally sensitive area.
So I wondered why the state’s Department of Environmental Quality didn’t retain someone like professor John V. “Van” Brahana of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas, who I’m told does have a phone. Brahana is an expert on the fractured karst that underlies much of Northwest Arkansas. He’s more than capable of examining the site of this 630-acre operation at Mount Judea. After all, this place will house 6,500 swine continually generating at least two millions gallons of waste pumped into two lagoons and applied across fields near Big Creek.
And certainly no responsible people would want misinformation spread about what can be expected from this farm’s waste output, especially alleged omissions and misinformation of the kind cited in both the Farm Service Agency’s environmental assessment report and the Department of Environmental Quality permit’s nutrient management plan. Right?
But since the state didn’t recruit Brahana to prepare such a study, I asked his thoughts.
Few, if any, geoscientists are more familiar with the distinctive Ozark karst that forms the Boone Formation and how easily and rapidly it carries groundwater pollution. He told me the formation, particularly beneath Newton County, is honeycombed with caves, sinkholes and underground springs.
“Newton County has the single largest number of reported caves for any county in the state,” said Brahana, who had performed a cursory review of the C&H Hog Farms site. “The setting of this … hog farm overlies one of the most intensively karsified rock units in the state. … The concentration of animal wastes is huge and safely retaining them in the clay-line [lagoons] proposed is highly unlikely.”
The professor said if waste should escape this farm, it would likely negatively affect the overall water quality of the Buffalo National River. “Identifying all the subsurface short-circuits that could deliver waste to the river is neither practical or economically feasible. The Buffalo is the major regional drain through which groundwater and tributary surface water (Big Creek) leaves the region and pollutants would ultimately end up in that waterway. Cleanup after the fact is much more expensive than avoiding the problem before it occurs,” he said.
Formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, Brahana has taught for 23 years at the University of Arkansas. The professor’s numerous studies include a dry creek bed along the Carroll-Boone County line where poultry waste had contaminated nearby wells and springs. A highway expansion had exposed underlying karst bedrock with interlayers of “horrible-smelling gooey sediment composed of decaying poultry debris and waste and a spring that was proven to be connected to the dry creek bed that was horribly contaminated,” he said. “In my 51 years of professional groundwater studies, I’ve never encountered a more contaminated spring anywhere.”
The makeup of the karst hydrology along Big Creek adjacent to the hog farm is very similar, he added.
The professor told of another instance along a tributary of Osage Creek where the weight of a pond formed by damming that stream caused it to collapse into a previously undetected cavern. From there the flow traveled subsurface along the stream valley and into Osage Creek. “Big Creek at the CAFO site has nearly identical hydrogeologic properties and settings,” he said, further explaining that various contaminants can travel through karst anywhere from feet to a matter of miles in a single day.
I closed my exchange with Brahana by asking on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most likely (and knowing what he has learned of the Cargill-supported and supplied site for this industrial hog farm), what he believes are the odds of our nation’s first national river becoming contaminated from the waste the farm generates. “A nine on Big Creek and a nine on the Buffalo,” he responded. But of course, our state never asked this expert for a truly scientific opinion before issuing the permit.
Meanwhile, it was interesting to see scores of folks gather Wednesday on the courthouse square in Jasper to protest the hog farm. In what struck me and lots of other Arkansans as a blatant public relations move to build support for the farm, corporate giant Cargill sponsored a lunch for some legislators at the popular Ozark Cafe, also on the Jasper square. Silly me, I wondered why Cargill wasn’t also kindly buying lunch for all those potential customers carrying signs across the street.
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at mikemastersonsmessenger.com.