Fouling a National River Is Bad for Business (Vic Snyder & Ed Bethune Commentary)
by Ed Bethune and Vic Snyder on Monday, Apr. 27, 2015 12:00 am
What is the economic value of a public image? Paying $1.4 million for a 30-second 2015 Super Bowl commercial seems outrageous, but it is not exorbitant for a multibillion-dollar corporation. The money spent burnishes an image and induces consumers to buy more product.
What is the economic cost of a disaster? How many advertising dollars does it take to erase the lingering images of a product recall, an oil spill or other environmental disasters? BP, Exxon and General Motors have learned how such events can impact the bottom line. It makes no sense to waste money and hard-earned goodwill when such disasters can be avoided.
Recently, food giant Cargill placed a hog factory in the watershed of America’s first National River. The Buffalo River in the Arkansas Ozarks was deemed to be of such unique ecological value that congressional Republicans and Democrats joined together to preserve it. In 1972, the bill was signed into law by President Richard Nixon placing 135 miles of pristine waters under the stewardship of the National Park Service.
Now sitting just upstream from the Buffalo is a feces-generating concentrated animal feeding operation, known as a CAFO. The hog factory is owned by three local people, but the 6,500 caged pigs belong to Cargill.
Cargill argues that the company and local owners did everything right by state standards, but local landowners were not notified and neither was the National Park Service. There was no public notice in newspapers or public hearing. Indifferent state officials, with little consideration for the environment, issued a permit. Sadly and inexplicably, the Arkansas authorities turned a blind eye to the porous karst geology of the area and the proximity of a public school.
The hog factory is now causing concern at the federal level. Local and national conservation groups filed suit challenging a $3.5 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan for the factory. A federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas recently ruled that the environmental assessment — a requirement for such loans — was “cursory, flawed, and inadequate.” He ordered the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency to withdraw their financial backing until a new assessment is completed. In the meantime, however, the hog factory proceeds apace under a cloud of financial doubt.
Pollution concerns about the river are real. The hog factory generates more than 2.5 million gallons of waste each year, the equivalent of a city of 35,000 people. The untreated feces and urine are held in two lagoons before being spread over “spray fields” of shallow soil and limestone rock adjoining Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo National River just a few miles away. The threat of toxic sludge seeping into the water table or polluting the watershed is real.
Recently, the National Park Service and an independent hydrogeologist released test results showing that E. coli readings have been climbing at the confluence of the two streams, as much as 37 percent more than a few years ago. Water oxygen levels are decreasing and algae levels increasing. The findings are consistent with a study published last year by the University of North Carolina and Johns Hopkins University. In North Carolina, scientists found, “Fecal indicator bacteria were detected at concentrations that exceeded federal and state recreational water quality guideline values, with the highest concentrations observed immediately downstream of swine CAFO spray fields.”
If this trend continues, the pristine Buffalo River will be tainted. How might that affect the million-plus visitors who fish, canoe, swim and camp on the river each year? Buffalo River tourism generates $50 million in annual revenue and 500 local jobs.
Industrial animal factories should be placed in areas that will not threaten the environment. Business development is a good thing, but responsibility comes with profit. The previous director of the Arkansas agency that approved the permit acknowledged that pollution will happen. As a result the state of Arkansas has been forced to spend almost $500,000 in taxpayer money to monitor water quality.
We worry that the state of Arkansas will one day be forced to tell the world that our precious Buffalo River is contaminated. That has been the story in other states across the country: For example in 2009, a ruptured holding pond in Illinois caused a fish kill 20 miles downstream from a hog factory; in 2010, rain washed 200,000 gallons of recently sprayed manure into two nearby Indiana rivers, causing another massive fish kill.
The potential damage from such an announcement is incalculable, and that leads us back to our original question: What is the economic value of a public image? How much does it cost to repair damage caused by a disaster? Why does Cargill want to take that risk? Why do Arkansas bureaucrats and politicians want to take the risk? The price tag for doing the right thing and moving the hog factory would be much cheaper than a few Super Bowl commercials.
Ed Bethune, a Republican, represented Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District from 1979-85, and Vic Snyder, a Democrat, represented the district from 1997-2011.