Eureka Springs Independent
Hog factory settlement ‘was the best that could be hoped for’
By Becky Gillette
- July 24, 2019
Not everyone was entirely pleased with the recent $6.2 million settlement to buy a conservation easement at C&H Farms where a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) near Mount Judea was permitted to grow 6,500 hogs indoors. There were concerns about being paid to stop pollution that never should have been allowed in the first place.
Although the owners claimed there was no proof that the operation was linked to decreasing water quality and large algae blooms in the Big Creek and the Buffalo National River, opponents pointed to evidence that the liquid waste spray fields around the facility were over saturated with phosphorus, a nutrient well known to cause oxygen deprivation and algae blooms.
Officials with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA), which was established because of the hog factory, said the settlement was a major victory that will allow the CAFO to be shut down and more pollution avoided.
“Of all the possible resolutions to this, we think this is absolutely the best,” Jack Stewart, BRWA co-founder and vice president, said. “If we would have won in the court, it would have taken a couple more years and untold amounts of money. The cost of lawyers and expert witnesses is through the roof, $400 to $500 an hour. And it wasn’t even so much the economics of it, but all the time there would be increasing phosphorus in the surrounding fields that could leak into Big Creek or contaminate underground streams.”
Stewart said if C&H had been shut down without compensation, there could have been a strong blowback in the local community because C&H had supporters.
“This way they have been made whole,” Stewart said. “While six million sounds like an awful lot of money, some is going be used to eliminate their debt, and the settlement is split among three farmers. This was their livelihood. While there has been a complaint about the taxpayers being involved, we are culpable in a way because we have allowed our Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to get away with these kinds of things.”
The issue of debt has come up recently with news reports the Arkansas Legislative Council has granted its leaders the authority to approve the governor’s funding request only if the state has the first lien position on the property in the conservation easement. Stewart said that addresses the issue some people had with a lack of transparency about the settlement; that action shows that this wasn’t just a back room deal with no public oversight.
The ADEQ permit for the large CAFO was issued in 2012 with the only notice being a small legal ad. Most locals didn’t know about the facility until it was under construction. Recently ADEQ denied a new permit to the facility, and that decision was under appeal.
Concerning the issue of C&H and its ally, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, saying there was no proof that the CAFO was polluting, Stewart said it has been well-established elsewhere in the country, such as in North Carolina, that CAFO hog waste caused major declines in water quality and massive fish kills. Locals observed that water quality had declined and algae blooms increased since the Mount Judea CAFO started operating.
“The more you learn about CAFOs, the more you see how terrible they are,” Stewart said. “But that is a worldwide issue. These big corporations are sending their method of so-called agriculture all over the world. My issue is that we promised the nation, when we set aside the area around the Buffalo River, that we were going to protect it for present and future generations. If we can’t protect the Buffalo River, everything is vulnerable.”
About claims that the settlement subverted the claims process, Stewart said it didn’t go through the state claims commission, which has a low limit on the amount of money channeled through it.
“It was about as upfront as it could be because to say the buyout was going to happen would have made the price would go up,” Stewart, a former member of the National Audubon Society Board of Directors, said. “It had to be done tactfully because C&H was under pressure with these lawsuits. One thing that took them into being willing to negotiate was the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to take our case.”
BRWA had argued that a local judge didn’t have jurisdiction over ADEQ in acting to give C&H permission to continue to operate on an expired permit while the issue made its way through the courts.
Once the buyout was announced, that lawsuit was put on hold. But Stewart said they haven’t backed off on it yet because they want everything finalized before dropping the lawsuit.
Another concern was that the settlement could let the C&H owners off the hook for future liability. But Stewart said there is nothing in writing that exonerates C&H from future liability if it is found it harmed endangered species or caused other environmental degradation.
“Have they been exonerated? No, they have not,” he said. “The governor took responsibility for ADEQ even though it wasn’t under his administration. Our lawyers tell us that C&H still could be liable for damage, particularly if it is an endangered species. I have to give the governor credit. This was tough politically to buck the Farm Bureau. It took a lot of his political skills. And our understanding is that his office has been flooded with thank you calls.”
The impact from the hog waste is expected to continue for years. Flyovers have shown the hog lagoons are full.
“We plan to carefully monitor the cleanup process as soon as details are made available and there will be a public comment period,” Stewart said. “We have also hired a consulting firm.”
One other concern was that another hog operation could come into the same area if there is not a permanent moratorium on not just large, but also medium CAFOs. Stewart said ADEQ made it clear in the just-released permanent moratorium language that medium CAFOs will also be prohibited.
“We will be watching closely in case there is an attempt to weaken any part of the language during the comment period,” Stewart said.
Stewart thinks it highly unlikely another CAFO will be allowed to operate in the karst geology of the Buffalo River watershed and ADEQ is now taking a harder look before permitting similar facilities in the state.
The issue has had implications far beyond Arkansas. Recently a CAFO was turned town in Michigan in a karst area after the Buffalo National River case was referenced. Also, because of concerns raised in BRWA lawsuits about the way that funding was approved, the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency have changed procedures for loan guarantees of this type.
The Buffalo River was first threatened by dams in the 1960s. The dams were stopped and the Buffalo became the first national river in 1972. The first big threat had the bumper sticker slogan: Save the Buffalo River. The hog waste issue’s bumper sticker said: Save the Buffalo River Again. Stewart said they now have a new bumper sticker: Save the Buffalo River Forever.