Why I write on
Some readers must be wondering if ol’ Mike’s gone hog wild with swine fever. I can’t blame them after two dozen or so columns about the state’s wrongheaded decision to permit the Mount Judea hog factory (calling itself a family farm) smack in the Buffalo National River watershed.
I simply realize what these pristine waters and towering bluffs flowing through the heart of God’s Country mean to me and many thousands of Arkansans and Americans.
And I understand how hard a band of devoted brothers who appreciate the mystical nature of this stream fought during the early 1970s (and continue their struggle) to protect and preserve it for generations to come as our country’s first national river.
The multinational corporate giant and supplier of these hogs, Cargill Inc., has its public relations department to churn out favorable releases. The owners of C&H Hog Farms have their supporters that include the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the U.S. Farm Service Agency, our own state’s Department of Environmental Quality (cough, ’scuse me) and the Newton County Quorum Court where one of the farm’s owners holds a seat.
I’ve chosen to speak on behalf of the river. Plus, I’ve never cared for the irrational way our state too often conducts the public’s business, supposedly in the public’s best interests. Those who endured four years of my writings about the failure of our state’s criminal injustice system in the travesty known as the death of Marshall’s Janie Ward understand that quirk of my nature.
It’s the plethora of irregularities and the quiet manner in which this farm was eased across all bureaucratic hurdles that have caused me to question how this travesty unfolded in such a treasured location.
Initially I wondered in whose mind the idea for a massive hog factory in the karst-riddled Buffalo watershed originated. Cargill says the factory farm it is supplying and supporting is run by experienced, capable family farm hogsters who initially approached their corporation with the idea to raise many thousands of swine near Big Creek, a major Buffalo tributary.
Perhaps. Yet I feel the entity to profit most clearly is Cargill. The farmers secured a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to raise Cargill’s swine. But while doing all the work, they also shoulder the burdens and risks should unexpected environmental disasters occur as they have in other states.
I’m deeply troubled to see the state’s Department of Environmental Quality issue the farm’s operating permit, then claim it had no choice because the place met all its criteria. That sounds kinda like animal control approving a full-grown hippo as a house pet because, after all, the behemoth had all its body parts intact.
Even the agency’s own director, Teresa Marks, said she didn’t know her staff was awarding the permit until it was done; agency staff in Newton County, based nearest the farm, said they weren’t aware the hog factory was approved until it had been. Our governor, who appointed Marks, said through his spokesman that given his “druthers,” he wouldn’t have permitted the farm. Talk about a game of who’s on first!
Others who apparently didn’t know the factory was being permitted include the National Park Service office that manages the river, the state health department and the folks at Game and Fish. There were no public hearings held in Newton or Boone counties.
Then I spoke with Randall Mathis, who had held Marks’ job under three governors. Mathis explained that he established a policy against placing new contained animal feeding operations in the Buffalo River watershed. He said he issued a moratorium on such factories there in 1992 because of the pervasive limestone subsurface.
With that karst problem in the Ozarks being well understood, why didn’t this agency insist on groundwater flow studies before giving its approval? One of the nation’s foremost karst experts has since agreed to conduct those tests. Why hasn’t the department (or the farmers) jumped on that offer?
Mathis can’t fathom how an Environmental Quality director could possibly not know this permit was happening well in advance.
I see understandable outrage expressed in the National Park Service’s rebuke of the Farm Service Agency’s environmental assessment on this hog factory in guaranteeing its loan with taxpayer contributions. The Park Service (also wrongly listed as a supporter of the assessment in that document) cited 45 instances of what it deemed omissions, errors and misstatements in the filing.
Then I learned that the Farm Service Agency official who said he oversaw his agency’s loan guarantee is married to a relative of the family that owns this facility. Did that make any difference? It appears odd at best to me, but decide for yourself.
The bottom line about this misplaced hog factory has been that the government’s roles in approving this home for 6,500 swine is filled with more gaps, fissures and fractures than the karst underlying most of Newton County.
Amid such shocking loss of common sense, I continue to write on, soooie.
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at mikemasterson10@hotmail. com. Read his blog at mikemastersonsmessenger.com.