The Buffalo battle
SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
More than a generation ago, Arkansas residents and elected representatives joined hands to protect and preserve one of the last free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. In 1972 the Buffalo River, the crown jewel of Arkansas, was designated America’s first national river. The pristine spring-fed waters that wind though the Ozarks are an environmental wonderland and the heart and soul of the Natural State.
For 40 years the Buffalo River has been essentially pollution free. But recently a state agency granted a permit that threatens its waters and the livelihoods of thousands of Arkansans. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality approved a factory hog farm on one of the river’s major tributaries. The C & H Hog Farms, a 6,500-pig facility (and its accompanying manure and urine), sits atop porous land in Newton County that drains into Big Creek and several miles later into the Buffalo. The hog farm is contracted by Cargill, a huge international conglomerate.
How did we get here? It’s a question that leaves all of us scratching our heads … even many elected officials. The permit was granted without notifying surrounding landowners, county residents, county officials, the Arkansas Department of Health, or the National Park Service. ADEQ simply placed a notice on its website for 30 days and another in the back of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The permitting process flew under the radar and Arkansans didn’t discover what had happened until nine months after the fact. Every state that surrounds Arkansas calls for local notifications and allows public hearings before granting a permit, but for some reason that did not happen here.
The impact of a factory farm of 6,500 pigs is very real. Even best management practices and an operator concerned with environmental impacts can’t prevent animal waste from leaching through the limestone geology or spilling over holding ponds. C & H is proposing to dump additional phosphorus-laden waste onto fields that already have all or more than they need. This could cause significant amounts of phosphorus infiltration to groundwater and possibly runoff. And based on soil maps, seven of the 17 C & H fields are occasionally flooded by Big Creek and its tributaries throughout the time period phosphorus would be spread and applied, an issue obscured by C & H’s permit application.
C & H Hog Farms will produce over two million gallons of manure each year. That’s 8,500 tons. In other states, year after year there are disasters:
In July 2009, a manure holding pond ruptured in Illinois, sending 200,000 gallons into a nearby river. The spill traveled almost 20 miles downstream, killing close to 110,000 fish.
In 2010, an Indiana hog farm operator sprayed 200,000 gallons of hog manure onto a field during rainy weather. The runoff killed 40,000 fish in two nearby rivers.
In 2011 in Iowa, a breach in a hog manure holding pond leaked into a nearby river, killing fish five miles downstream.
Imagine any of those scenarios happening in the Buffalo River watershed. As a national river, the Buffalo is entitled to the highest level of protection, and we shouldn’t risk contamination.
Cargill and the people behind C & H Hog Farms have a right to make a living, but so do the people who live and work in the Buffalo River region. In 2012, direct tourism expenditures in Arkansas totaled $5.7 billion.
The Buffalo National River is an anchor for tourism in the Ozarks where over a million people visit each year. They spend money in our stores. They rent our vacation homes. They eat in our restaurants. They fish and float our river. Last year the Buffalo River generated $38 million in revenue and created 528 jobs. In contrast, C & H Hog Farms will create only 10 jobs while generating tons of pollution and putting those other 528 jobs at risk. Tourism is a clean, locally sustainable industry that imports wealth and leaves behind no residue.
Because of this dire threat to our river and our state, we have joined forces to protect the Buffalo River and preserve the legacy passed down to us by our parents and grandparents. The Ozark Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Arkansas Canoe Club and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance are working together to correct a grave mistake.
Hank Bates, a Little Rock environmental attorney and a member of our coalition, recently sent a letter to ADEQ Director Teresa Marks challenging the permit based upon the hog farm’s nutrient management plan and its many holes and inaccuracies. At a public meeting in Jasper, Marks said she would revoke, modify or suspend the factory farm’s permit if it contained significant omissions of relevant facts. There is no doubt that this is the case.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Mr. Bates supplied to ADEQ , Director Marks recently responded by essentially ignoring the law and refuting nothing. Respected hydrologists and geologists recognize the risk to our treasured river and support our position. ADEQ seems to want to sweep this under the rug and move on.
In May, our organizations also sent a notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its $4 million loan guarantee to the factory farm. The USDA action may violate the Endangered Species Act. The watershed is home to over 300 species of fish, insects, freshwater mussels, and aquatic plants, including the endangered snuffbox mussel, the endangered gray bat, and the endangered Indiana bat.
Listing all of the failures and misrepresentations surrounding the permitting process would take many pages. One thing is absolutely clear, though: The actions of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and USDA’s Farm Service Agency have threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Arkansans and the river’s fragile ecosystem.
The Buffalo River is a regional and national treasure as well as a vital part of our economy. There are thousands of square miles in other parts of the state that are much more suitable for factory farms.
We remain confident that this messy situation will soon be resolved expeditiously, based on the facts. The permitting process was inadequate. It did not receive proper public input. More importantly, it did not take into consideration the public health of area residents, the almost certain pollution of Arkansas’s crown jewel, and the economic threat to the region’s multimillion-dollar tourism industry.
Michael Dougherty is president of the Buffalo River Chamber of Commerce and member of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.