I'm nervous when the Legislature is in session. I thought this year would be different, but when I opened my iPad to the paper and read the story that a Ledge committee is reopening the door to polluting the Buffalo National River, I was shocked.
Then the next day another committee, by voice vote, confirmed the previous committee's decision to not make a moratorium on factory hog farms permanent. I guess, by voice vote, they kept from going on record as being anti-Buffalo National River.
The moratorium would not have any effect on farming or livestock operations occurring today. It would only keep large factory farms from locating on the river's watershed. It's hard to imagine why either committee wouldn't ask qualified scientists the reasons for the moratorium. Sooner or later the river will be polluted if the moratorium is lifted, leaving the door open for another potential disaster.
A large portion of the watershed topography is the Boone Formation. Originally, the site approved for the now closed factory hog farm didn't have a review by a geologist. The staff geologist had just retired when the permit was received by the Department of Environmental Quality, and he later wrote a letter to the department saying the permit should never have been granted.
In a column last year, I discussed the problem of the hog farm site and the 11 fields where the manure of the factory farm was spread, which is why a permanent ban should be put in place. A significant part of the upper Buffalo National River's watershed drains from a karst topography, a cherty calcified limestone which weathers into cracks, voids, and caverns.
Water, or anything that is placed on this rock formation, either runs downhill to a stream and eventually flows into the Buffalo or seeps into the underlying rocks, flowing through interconnected cracks and voids, and ends up in the Buffalo. That's the problem. It's Geology 101. A freshman from the University of Arkansas could have told the legislative committee the reason the moratorium should be made permanent.
But the committee's eternal wisdom overrode science, and its members voted not to make the moratorium permanent. Of course, they received deeply considered advice from the Arkansas Farm Bureau. By the way, if the Legislature hasn't come up with a state snake, I have a nomination.
If you are one of the committee who voted not to make the moratorium permanent, your actions speak louder than the I-love-the-river statements. You don't love the river.
But evidently Senator Missy Irvin is a geologist, because she says, "This [the moratorium] is not the problem ... I've experienced it, I've lived it, I know it, and I see what's happening."
I've lived it too--swam and fished in the river, walked those outcrops of Swiss cheese limestone, did a geologic surface map of a 36-square-mile quad in the area, and I'm a professional geologist with a master's degree. You and the rest of the no-voters on the committee are saying you know better than a professional geologist?
It is inconceivable that when you have something scientific to vote on, you don't listen to experts and pretend you know better than they do. Valid geologic facts make the case for a permanent moratorium. If you don't make it permanent, sooner or later a similar operation to the hog farm will be sited on the watershed and the river will be polluted, and it will be your fault.
You join the long list of folks who tried to kill or wound the river. Back in the 1970s the River Killers (that's the Corps of Engineers) were going to put yet another dinosaur lake in the state, and it was going to be Lake Buffalo. But thanks to Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville and hundreds of others who joined the fight to stop the dam, the river was spared.
A few years later another threat reared its ugly head. I'd just been appointed to the State Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, and one of the first orders of business was to approve a permit for a landfill called the Pindall Landfill. It was to be located on the Buffalo River's watershed.
I worked with the Ozark Society and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and countless other concerned Arkansawyers, and the Commission turned down the permit. Scientific studies showed almost all landfills eventually leak, and if the Pindall Landfill leaked, it would drain directly into the river. Once again the Buffalo was saved, this time from pollution, and I figured after that fight the river would always be protected.
Boy, was I wrong! Because a hog farm that seemed no one was aware of was given a permit, and the Buffalo was on the ropes again. It wasn't just the runoff that would be a problem, but the waste from 6,500 hogs spread on 11 fields, which would seep into the underlying karst topography, and eventually end up in the Buffalo.
Yes, water runs downhill! The hundreds of springs that you see flowing into the river are carrying water from throughout the Buffalo National River's watershed, and the water from fields where hog manure is spread is carrying waste. That water percolates through the sub-surface into the river.
As the hog farm threat to pollute the Buffalo became apparent, the people of Arkansas--the thousands who wrote the governor and the Department of Environmental Quality--shut it down. Governor Hutchinson finally pulled the trigger, something he should have done several years earlier, because by the time he did so huge amounts of the polluted underground water had already made its way into the subsurface toward Big Creek and eventually to the Buffalo.
It will take years, probably decades, to reverse the damage already done to the river. I don't recommend drinking the river's water, folks.
We thought the river would never face another threat, but the "no moratorium" voters on the committee are leaving the door wide open. You no-voters are aligning yourselves with the Corps of Engineers who wanted to dam the river and with the Pindall Landfill potential polluters.
Make no bones about it, you don't love the Buffalo.