Large storms pose greatest risk of CAFO runoff, experts say
Storms caused the greatest increase in pollutants from an industrial hog farm in northern Arkansas, a water expert said Tuesday during a talk at MU.
Andrew Sharpley, a distinguished professor of soils and water quality at the University of Arkansas, found that the greatest pollution threat to the Buffalo National River watershed came from nitrogen and phosphorus spread in just two storms over a five-year period. His team was sponsored by the state legislature to monitor the ecological impact of C&H Hog Farms.
Sharpley talked to graduate students as part of a series of seminars sponsored by the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. He talked to about 40 students and a handful of faculty about the challenges and takeaways from his study on watershed impact from the now-closed C&H Hog Farms in Newton County, Arkansas.
CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, like C&H Hog Farms, which had a permit for 6,500 hogs, have been a subject of debate in Missouri this year and especially since Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 391.
The bill prohibits county health boards from enacting more stringent regulations of CAFOs than state law, according to previous Missourian reporting. The bill was signed into law by the governor in May, but Cole County Presiding Judge Patricia Joyce issued a temporary restraining order to delay the bill from going into effect, as its constitutionality is in question. This has given county health boards additional time to enact new regulation of the feeding operations, since SB 391 will not have a retroactive effect on the law, Ken Midkiff previously told the Missourian.
In Arkansas, the C&H farm was a divisive venture from the start, as there was strong community opposition to industrial farming, Sharpley said. Community concern about the Buffalo River was already high due to past contamination. The river was declared biologically dead in 1967, and in 1968, it caught fire due to the its content of oil and grease, which Sharpley said spurred the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972.
C&H also raised concerns about how pollution could impact river tourism demand, which generates roughly $1.5 million annually, he said.
However, there was also strong support for C&H as the farm was expected to create jobs and benefit the local economy. Among the supporters were farmers who thought that since the planning requirements met the standards to attain permits, the right to farm was in jeopardy.
Sharpley’s team was focused on measuring the impact on nearby streams, springs, groundwater and soil, which were at risk of impact from nutrients and bacteria present in the C&H manure slurry.
His team found that the greatest amount of nitrogen and phosphate on the farm and adjacent waterways was caused by “100-year storms,” which occurred twice during the five-year study. Increases in the chemicals are a problem because both nutrients lead to algal blooms, which can absorb too much oxygen in the water and cause mass die-offs of marine life. Algae blooms and die-offs cause bacterial growth and release toxins which increase the likelihood of sickness for people who come into contact with contaminated water, according to the EPA.
Sharpley attributed these changes to climate change, “or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “It’s indicative of changing weather patterns the region is seeing.”
Local agricultural activist and retired U.S Geological Survey technical information specialist Jeanne Heuser, who attended Sharpley’s talk, said “there’s a real disconnect” between farmers’ desire for economic freedom and their support of CAFOs. Heuser a Moniteau County resident, said after Tuesday’s talk that she’s concerned about the public health effects and foreign and corporate ownership of CAFOs.
Studies have shown factory farms make it harder for small farming operations to compete, and drive down regional wages due to their employment of fewer high-paying jobs than multiple family farms would require.
A 2008 analysis by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production found that because of the benefits CAFOs collect through tax breaks and government subsidies, they can actually act as a burden to taxpayers. Their presence has also been linked to decreased retail trade, higher rates of poverty and less active main streets.
Sharpley’s team has yet to complete its final report on the C&H study. Its methodology and data are being further reviewed for accuracy by an independent panel of experts. Sharpley cautioned that years of additional field study are still needed to draw clear conclusions about runoff and its potential risk to watersheds, due to the lack of scientific control in field studies.
“Some of these effects might be long-term effects,” he said. “(C&H’s) impact may not be apparent now, but in a couple more years, after it rains, we might see some more impact.”
Meanwhile, C&H farm has closed as the state found that its permits shouldn’t have been approved in the first place. The farm’s owners accepted $6.2 million to shut down the facility,according to reporting by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.