MASTERSON ONLINE: Hogs gone
by Mike Masterson | January 18, 2020 at 1:49 a.m.
It was a development that for seven uncertain years marked by controversy, legal disputes and rancor, few believed would come to pass.
Yet thanks to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the enduring efforts by so many concerned Arkansas citizens and determined environmental activist groups, the C&H Hog Farms operation perched above and along a tributary to our treasured Buffalo National River is now officially closed. Well, OK, almost.
Although the 6,500 swine are gone, the factory is not fully shut down because the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) who wrongheadedly allowed the factory into the watershed still must clean out the large raw-waste ponds and areas around the two massive barns before the official closure plan (which folks have yet to see) has been completed.
Only then will it be permanently and officially shut down. I suppose it's best (with lawyers involved) to say the barns are now empty and C&H has satisfied the requirements of their settlement agreement and vacated the premises.
Environmental reporter Emily Walkenhorst wrote the news account last week saying that, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Arkansas (with financial assistance from The Nature Conservancy) paid the farmers $6.2 million in exchange for the closure.
That means the state now possesses the land in the form of a conservation easement, and this controversy mercifully has squealed to a halt (couldn't resist).
Valued readers know I became invested over the years in writing continuously about this travesty the Department of Environmental Quality should never have surreptitiously approved in 2012.
I wrote often (and intensely at times) about the disgraceful way this arrangement had been struck only because I always have held deep affections for this river and all it means to my native state. I was born not far from it and spent many days enjoying its clear spring-fed waters.
The secrecy surrounding the state's original permit for this factory--in cooperation with Cargill Inc. (later bought out by JBS of Brazil)--to me smacked of good-ol'-boyism and seemed far beyond simply suspicious or coincidental. Even today I believe the circumstances of that questionable approval still deserve deeper official investigation.
Even the Department of Environmental Quality's own director at the time said she didn't know the factory had been approved until after it was a done deal.
Simply put, a certain group of agency employees at the time permitted the mega-waste-generating factory to operate in a karst-riddled environment without insisting on extensive studies on groundwater flow and safety, despite the agency's own regulations that demanded that. Many also wonder how and why that happened.
Making matters worse, former Gov. Mike Beebe, on whose watch this travesty unfolded, later said he didn't know at the time that the factory had been permitted. In an interview as he departed office, Beebe said he considered allowing the factory into the watershed his biggest regret. I can imagine. That's not the kind of legacy any governor would care to claim.
As I've also written multiple times in what had to approach 100 columns (some understandably grew weary of such persistence), the fault for this suspicious and unacceptable permit was not shouldered by the farm's owners. To the contrary, I believe they did everything our state asked of them (such as that was).
Instead, the Department of Environmental Quality, as the purported gatekeeper in this instance, gets the fullest possible measure of responsibility for ever allowing a concentrated animal feeding operation (aka CAFO) into this fragile watershed. After all, it is the very region this same department years earlier had protected against such factories with a moratorium.
The agency involved obviously had to have known better going into the deal it approved.
As Walkenhorst wrote, the land in question has been placed in a state conservation easement managed by Parks, Tourism and Heritage, thus hopefully marking a new beginning for the watershed.
The governor publicly said he appreciated the willingness of the Campbell and Henson families of Newton County to work with the state in purchasing their sizable investment.
"Now [I] look forward to the work that the state will be doing to ensure that the Buffalo National River continues to be the treasure that it is," he said in the news release from the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Department Secretary Stacy Hurst said in the release, "It's been a long road to get to this point but has been worth the effort as a step to ensure the vitality of the Buffalo National River now and into the future."
One who must be particularly relieved at the closure is Gordon Watkins, whose Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was instrumental in relentlessly fighting the factory's permitting and location.
Watkins and his alliance were united with other concerned Arkansas environmental groups and individuals such as geosciences professor emeritus Dr. John Van Brahana and Brahana's volunteers, who remained dedicated to preserving the quality of the Buffalo.
All the people and groups who rose to steadfastly defend the river are to be commended for standing tall in what's been called the second battle to save the Buffalo National River (designated as such in 1972).
"I'm glad that we've reached this milestone, and hopefully we can get the closure plan finalized in a not-too-long period of time and we can put this thing to bed," Watkins told the reporter.
Meanwhile, we can ask ourselves what happens now since the fields along Big Creek have been continuously sprayed with millions of gallons of raw waste for six years.
The waste contains phosphorus and nitrogen, both fertilizers that can trigger massive algae blooms in freshwater streams. Miles of the Buffalo in recent years have become choked with the dark green stuff, which in some instances can be toxic.
The spray fields in question are along or near Big Creek, which flows 6.6 miles downstream into the Buffalo, a portion of which in the past two years, along with Big Creek, has been declared impaired.
As this contaminating waste soaks through the relatively thin layer of topsoil and into the fractured limestone beneath, varying amounts will lodge in the karst honeycomb of crevasses and caves. There it can remain for years as it steadily washes into the water table with each major rainfall.
This means our Buffalo may well be feeling the negative effects of those millions of gallons for decades to come. And that would indeed be a terrible shame for those who enjoy our state's magnificent river.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.
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