Hog-farm ban moves into lap of legislators
by Joseph Flaherty |
Efforts to make permanent a moratorium on medium- and large-scale hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed advanced Thursday with the approval of the state's environmental regulatory commission, but the measure still must clear the Arkansas General Assembly.
The next hurdle is a hearing in a joint committee meeting scheduled for June 8.
The proposed ban on medium- and large-scale animal feeding operations is the result of a protracted battle by conservationists to close a hog farm operating since 2012 on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River.
C&H Hog Farms -- the only federally classified medium or large hog farm operating in the watershed, with a permit to house up to 6,503 hogs -- was closed in January after a buyout deal negotiated by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Last year, Hutchinson voiced support for making the moratorium on hog farms permanent. And while the proposal easily cleared the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission last week, it's unclear whether lawmakers will be as receptive.
"It's a very emotional issue for a lot of people, both sides," said Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
A joint meeting of the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor committees is now set to discuss the proposal. The committees were supposed to review the issue this month, but it was pulled from the agenda before the May 4 meeting.
If approved, the ban will receive consideration from the Rules Committee and Legislative Council.
During two committee meetings held near the river in northern Arkansas, Ladyman recalled, he heard from conservationists and people in the recreational industry who support the ban. On the opposite side were farmers and other locals concerned about excessive regulation.
Ladyman said Thursday that he has not made up his mind how he will vote. He is waiting to hear any new information brought up at the coming meeting, he said.
"I'm not sure where this is going to go," Ladyman said. "I know there are a lot of members of the committee that have talked to me that are opposed to it for a number of reasons."
On Thursday, with little discussion, the pollution commission approved revisions to Rules Five and Six, which compose the ban on confined animal operations in the watershed.
Nearly everyone on the commission voted yes. Commissioner Delia Haak recused herself during the vote on Rule Five, and Commissioner Robert Reynolds recused himself for the vote on Rule Six.
The pollution commission originally imposed a moratorium on the issuance of new permits for medium and large hog farms in April 2014, with repeated extensions.
When he announced the buyout deal with C&H Hog Farms last summer, Hutchinson said the moratorium should become permanent and delegated the rule-making process to the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality and Director Becky Keogh.
The ban would prohibit animal feeding operations with 750 or more swine weighing 55 pounds or more, or operations with 3,000 or more swine weighing less than 55 pounds.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau has consistently opposed the moratorium, pitting it against the governor as well as environmental groups such as the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society.
In a letter of opposition to state environmental regulators in January, the Farm Bureau argued that scientific evidence has not demonstrated harm to the Buffalo River from C&H Hog Farms and that the moratorium denies landowners in the watershed the right to farm.
Jeff Pitchford, the bureau's director of state affairs, public affairs and government relations, said that while the organization will "continue to answer questions of legislators," bureau officials have not met with lawmakers in advance of the June 8 hearing.
Lawmakers know their position on the issue, Pitchford said Thursday.
"I don't think there's anything new," he said.
When asked if the bureau intends to file a lawsuit if the ban receives final approval, Farm Bureau director of environmental and regulatory affairs John Bailey said he is unaware of any plans. However, he acknowledged a legal challenge is "a possibility" if farmers believe the action infringes on their rights.
"I think that everything would be looked at," Bailey said.
Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River alliance, said he hopes legislators defer to the technical expertise of the members of the pollution commission. He suggested that lawmakers are unlikely to "outright deny" the rulemaking process behind the moratorium.
"I am hopeful, but like I say, every time they try to predict what the Legislature's going to do, we get surprised, so I'm hesitant to make a prediction," Watkins said.
SundayMonday on 05/31/2020