Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
This is a message to raise awareness, a "wake-up call" of sorts.
Those of us listed below have come together as citizens to express our concerns about a little known action taken by the Missouri legislature in the final week of session regarding factory farms known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and the authority of locally elected county officials, or "local control." We fear that the action presents a serious potential threat to water quality and quality of life in the Ozarks.
We have all worked for and with water science and advocacy groups in leadership roles and are committed to keeping our Ozarks waters clean forever. Our purpose in sharing this message is to ensure that this threat does not go unnoticed.
Let's begin with the bill, SB 391, that passed and the chilling effect it has on our ability to protect the Ozarks from corporate farms. It bans counties in Missouri from enacting regulations for corporate, often foreign-owned, farms that are more stringent than state regulations. The Missouri legislature has steadily diminished these laws over the past five years to encourage the expansion of factory farms.
Counties in the Ozarks potentially impacted by this bill include Greene and Stone, which had previously passed county zoning ordinances, and Dade and Cedar, which had county health ordinances in place that prohibit or limit the size of CAFOs.
Loss of local control removes the last line of defense for communities that do not want the stench, threats to water supplies and loss of property values that accompany such huge corporate operations.
For those who may not know, CAFOs are large, open-air buildings or feedlots with cattle, hogs, turkeys or chickens jammed beak to tail feather or snout to bottom for fattening up. A CAFO is defined by the number of animals confined, with 1,000 or more cattle, 5,000-10,000 pigs and 35,000-40,000 chickens or turkeys as the norm.
Their excrement ends up in open-air lagoons or underlying pits until it is sprayed on or injected into adjoining fields, or transferred for offsite application. Concentrated animal waste is particularly damaging in the Ozarks, where rain, runoff and seepage through shallow soils represent a clear and present danger to the unique Ozarks karst topography of springs, creeks, streams, lakes and water tables. Once a CAFO is permitted, it is not easy to limit its growth and environmental impact or get rid of it.
Just ask our neighbors to the south along the Buffalo National River. In 2012, local families colluded with a major international conglomerate to place a 6,500-pig CAFO next to Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, just six miles from its confluence with the river. This facility was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and continues to spew untreated waste into the Buffalo, despite refusal of the same agency to renew the permit last year. The dispute languishes in the court system and likely will for the foreseeable future.
True family farming has been a valued and respected way of life in the Ozarks since its beginnings. There is no family farming going on here. It is an international meat factory that has caused the beautiful Buffalo River to become clogged with green algae.
Since 2013, politicians in Jefferson City have steadily diluted regulation of CAFOs to attract their business from states that are becoming more vigilant in oversight. During that time period, construction permit requirements have been waived, and the need to demonstrate "continuing authority," or the ability of owners to provide evidence of financial viability to properly manage operations, has been eliminated.
Perhaps most damaging, the Missouri Clean Water Commission, which issues CAFO permits, has been stacked with agricultural interests, thus crippling the last venue for citizen intervention in environmental destruction and corporate avarice beyond local control, which has now been stripped by legislators. What until recently was a requirement that four of seven commissioners be "independent" and representative of the general public has been legislated out of existence.
If Missouri legislators wish to make our state into the largest hog-producing state in the nation, there is not much we can do beyond voting against them. But doesn't it seem a bit hypocritical that these same legislators who rail against too much government interference think it is fine for the state to override laws passed by local citizens to protect their own communities?
And if a 6,500-pig confined animal feeding operation can suddenly appear along America's first national river in the heart of the Ozarks, the same could now happen in Dade, Cedar, Stone and even Greene counties with this new ban on local control.
Our Ozarks landscapes and waters are particularly vulnerable and unsuited for CAFOs. We urge people of the Ozarks to make their voices heard. We will aggressively fight the expansion of large corporate farms into the fragile topography and bountiful waters of the Ozarks. We hope you will join us.
Loring Bullard, retired director, Watershed Committee of the Ozarks
Linda Chorice, retired manager, Springfield Conservation Nature Center
Barbara Lucks, former sustainability officer, city of Springfield (retired), now in private consulting
John Madras, retired director, Water Protection Program, Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Todd Parnell, retired member and chairman of the Missouri Clean Water Commission
Joe Pitts, retired director, James River Basin Partnership
Barry Rowell, retired fire chief, city of Springfield
Beth Siegfried, retired educator
Tim Smith, retired Greene County and city of Springfield administration
Terry Whaley, retired director, Ozarks Greenways
National Parks Traveler
By Kurt Repanshek on July 2nd, 2019
Streaming out of the Boston Mountains in northwestern Arkansas, the Buffalo River flows in an arc across the roof of the state, heading north before bending southeasterly, gaining speed as it pours out of the thickly forested and leafy landscape before slowing somewhat as it crosses the tabletop-like Salem and Springfield plateaus.
This rumpled landscape historically was home to the Cherokee, who were forced out in 1828, which opened the landscape to white settlers who began to poke small farmsteads into the forests of oak, pine, and cedar.
For those who settled here, and on up until today, the Buffalo has been a lifeblood and thread through daily life. There was a time in the 1940s and 1950s when proposals to dam the river arose, and it was only the intervention of the National Park Service late in the ‘50s that put those plans to rest.
At the time, the Park Service believed “(T)he Buffalo deserves national attention not for any single quality but for an outstanding combination of qualities. The very base of the river’s appeal lies in its clean, flowing waters, which support a notable sports fishery and provide an opportunity for pleasurable boating and swimming. Its scenery is interesting and often spectacular. It is unspoiled by development and free of pollution.”
By 1968, the Park Service envisioned the Buffalo as the nation’s first “national river,” a unit of the National Park System that would not only keep the river flowing pristine, but its surrounding mountains and the valley it flows through would “yield experiences of a kind and quality that are becoming all too rare in urbanized America.”
Though the Buffalo did become the first national river in 1972, a century after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, the fact that it encompasses just 11 percent of the entire 1,338-square-mile river basin has led to threats to the Park Service’s intent to “insure sound land use to prevent pollution and scenic damage and to encourage economic farm units on the best agricultural lands.”
Park Service planners knew from the start there could be problems, pointing out that the national river’s boundaries were downhill from “89 percent of the drainage basin.” In other words, any pollution generated up above stood a good chance of eventually flowing into the river down below. Greatly increasing that likelihood is the region’s porous karst geology. This type of formation is composed of easily dissolved rocks, such as limestone and dolomite. Via sinkholes and caves, groundwater – and any pollution it carries -- can flow miles very quickly.
For the past six years a CAFO -- concentrated animal feeding operation -- has been operated about six miles upstream of the river, near Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo. The C&H Hog Farms operation confines about 6,500 pigs at a time. Long-running legal battles waged by river advocacy groups have tried to shut down the operation, and late this spring the battles were before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Now, though, the state of Arkansas has stepped in to shut down the operation by buying out the owners with $6.2 million from the state's rainy day fund to obtain a conservation easement on the land. The move follows an earlier decision by state officials to place a moratorium on other CAFOs in the Buffalo River watershed "due to the historical, cultural, and recreational significance" of the country's first national river.
Since the moratorium came after C&H had begun operations, it wasn't affected by the ban. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was expected Tuesday to formally announce the shutdown plan. Under it, the state Department of Environmental Quality was to take responsibility for closing down the pig farm and removing the liquid animal wastes stored on the grounds.
Newton County Times
By JAMES L. WHITE email@example.com
The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission on Friday approved the settlement for the conservation easement on the property that is currently C&H Hog Farm near Mt. Judea.
On June 13, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state had entered into an agreement with hog farm owners Jason Henson, Phillip Campbell and Richard Campbell to cease the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.
The agreement grants an easement of the 23.34 acres on which the hog farm stands to the Heritage Commission as a way to protect the Buffalo National River. The hog farm is near Big Creek, which is a tributary of the Buffalo six miles away.
The state agreed to pay hog farm owners $6.2 million in compensation for the easement.
Melissa Whitfield, communications director with the Department of Arkansas Heritage, said the funds will be a blend of money from the governor’s rainy-day fund, the Nature Conservancy and grant funds received by the Department of Arkansas Heritage from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council.
In a conference call Friday morning, Heritage Commission director Bill Hollimon asked commissioners for preliminary approval of the easement first, then final approval if they chose.
Holliman said the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality will oversee closure and clean-up of the hog farm. The owners will have up to 180 days to close the farm and move or liquidate all current stock.
Heritage Commission deputy director Jim Andrews, who also serves as commission legal counsel, answered commissioners’ questions.
Andrews explained that ADEQ is still formulating the formal clean-up process. He said the remaining hog waste could be applied to land as fertilizer, although that wasn’t very palatable to the agency. It could also be hauled away and incinerated or treated at an approved facility.
Andrews said that process could take two years to finalize the clean-up and the agency will bear the expense, not the landowners.
When asked about the payment to the hog farm owners, Andrews said the funds would first go into escrow to satisfy the $2.4 million in Farm Credit loans on the farm. The remainder would go to the owners, but the owners’ accountants have estimated fair market value between $10 million and $12 million. As such, any amount over the $6.2 million would be tax deductible.
“But there would be no cost to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission,” Hollimon added.
Commissioners unanimously passed both the preliminary and final approval.
Andrews said the governor had already approved the agreement, but officials are now waiting for the money to be appropriated by the legislative council to fund escrow. That will be the trigger that makes closure begin.
The final payment to the owners will be made when the easement is delivered to the Heritage Commission. It will not be designated a natural area and there will be no public access, Andrews said. The owners will still retain ownership, but the agreement said use will be restricted to:
• Free-Range livestock, excluding swine, except that livestock must not be confined for more than 45 days during any 12-month period with no more than two animal units per acre. Large animals (cows, horses, etc.) count as one animal unit, medium animals (sheep, goats, etc.) count as 0.5 animal unit, and smaller animals such as fowl will count as 0.1 animal units.
• Recreational activities.
• Single-family dwelling.
• Agricultural land management activities.
• Cultivation of crop normally found in the area.
• Other uses that are not prohibited in the agreement.
• Any use authorized by the grantee.
The Heritage Commission will retain the right to monitor land use annually. Andrews explained that would entail driving past the property to ensure no CAFO is in use, but given the amount of attention paid to the hog farm in the past, there will likely be many people watching for potential violations.
The governor had earlier ordered that a temporary moratorium on CAFO permits issued in the Buffalo National River watershed be made permanent. Andrews said that means the grandfathered status of C&H’s permit, which was issued prior to the temporary moratorium, would be removed and no more CAFO permits would be allowed.
REX NELSON: State of the stateby Rex Nelson
| June 30, 2019 at 2:01 a.m.
I've arrived early for my speaking engagement at Fordyce Rotary Club, so I decide to head downtown and walk around. While reading the timeline of local history behind Dallas County Museum, I think about how the Dallas County seat finds itself in the same position as many small towns across Arkansas.
Two years ago this month, I left a position in the corporate world to return to full-time journalism after 21 years away. My mission is this: Travel the highways and county roads of Arkansas and find stories that might interest our readers. Seek out not only the places that might soon be gone, but also find people who are overcoming the odds to make their communities better.
This isn't a column based purely on nostalgia. It isn't a travelogue. My hope is that over time it will give regular readers a chance to learn about areas of the state they rarely visit while also getting a sense of where Arkansas has been in the 200 years since it became a territory, where it is today and where it is headed.
What have I learned during these two years on the road?
I've learned that this is a state undergoing rapid urbanization. There's no bigger story in Arkansas right now. Following the 2010 census, I wrote about how Arkansas had become two states within a state with 39 counties gaining population and 36 counties losing population from 2000 to 2010.
When the figures from the 2020 census come out, we'll see that Arkansas gained population during the previous decade. But I can already tell you that even though the state as a whole will have grown, a majority of Arkansas counties will have lost population. I believe 45 or more of the 75 counties will record a loss during the decade.
There are only three strong growth areas in Arkansas now--the northwest corner, the Jonesboro-to-Paragould corridor, and the counties surrounding Little Rock. In most other areas, towns that are simply holding their own from a population standpoint can declare victory.
Some of the statistics are sobering.
In the Delta from 2012-17, Phillips County lost 10 percent of its population, Lee County lost 9.9 percent, Monroe County lost 9.8 percent, and Jefferson, Mississippi and Chicot counties lost 7.4 percent. Almost all the other Delta counties also lost residents.
In the pine belt of south Arkansas during the same period, Lafayette County lost 7.9 percent, Dallas County lost 7 percent, Nevada County lost 6.5 percent and Ouachita County lost 6 percent.
The biggest winners as far as population gains during that five-year period were Benton County at 14 percent, Washington County at 9.8 percent, Craighead County at 7.3 percent, Saline County at 7.2 percent, Madison County at 4.8 percent, Faulkner County at 4.4 percent, Greene County at 4.3 percent and Lonoke County at 4.1 percent.
I don't foresee significant changes in those trends in the years ahead. Outside of the high-growth areas, the towns that hold their own or grow a bit will tend to be those with four-year institutions of higher learning. Think Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Monticello, Russellville, Searcy, Batesville and Clarksville.
I predict continued strong growth in northwest Arkansas (I just spent a weekend in Bentonville, and what's happening there on the business, dining and cultural fronts amazes me), in the Jonesboro area and in central Arkansas. It should be noted that Arkansas gained population overall last year (at a time when the neighboring states of Louisiana and Mississippi were losing population) as growth in those three areas more than offset losses elsewhere.
For Arkansas to achieve its potential as a state (especially given the inevitability of continued rural population losses), several things must happen in addition to continued growth in these three areas:
• Though the Little Rock metropolitan area has been gaining population, the capital city itself has been stagnant for a decade. That must change. Given the energy of a young mayor and a new generation of leaders, I'm optimistic if they'll focus on the right things. Those include improving schools (these young leaders must realize that charter schools and private schools are important parts of that equation), reducing the crime rate and picking up the pace of downtown development. If Little Rock makes progress in those areas, private capital investments will flow into the city.
• Pine Bluff must turn itself around. Jonesboro is booming as the regional center for northeast Arkansas. It's time for Pine Bluff to again become the regional center for southeast Arkansas. There are a few positive things finally happening. There's $20 million of construction spending downtown with an aquatics center and library being completed. The Quapaw will spend almost $300 million on their casino resort and hire more than 1,000 employees. Developers continue to raise funds for a renovation of the Hotel Pines along with the development of a downtown entertainment district.
• Hot Springs must continue its focus on revitalizing downtown while tapping into the wealthy Dallas-Fort Worth market for visitors. Progress has occurred, but major buildings--Medical Arts, Dugan-Stewart, Velda Rose, Wade, DeSoto-Howe--remain empty. Tourism is Arkansas' No. 2 industry, and Hot Springs is the state's top draw. It's essential that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, instead of just chasing manufacturers, use its resources to recruit developers for these buildings and for the empty site that once housed the Majestic Hotel. It's also crucial that the planned renovation of the Arlington Hotel go forward.
Though rural Arkansas will continue to lose population, agriculture and forestry remain the state's No. 1 industry. That land is valuable from an economic standpoint. It's also valuable from a quality-of-life standpoint, especially in a place that calls itself the Natural State. Arkansas' natural beauty will attract talented, well-educated people if we'll do the following four things:
• Focus on keeping the state's streams as pristine as possible. The recent battle over a hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed refocused the public's attention on the importance of Arkansas' rivers and creeks. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has a program called Stream Teams in which groups adopt streams and work to keep them clean. Now is the time to make this program the best of its type in the country.
• Take the Game and Fish Commission's efforts to restore quail habitat to the next level. Habitat that's good for quail is also good for songbirds, small mammals and butterflies.
• Return marginal farmland to hardwood forests in the Arkansas Delta. Back when soybean prices were high in the 1970s, we cleared far too much land. It's time to plant trees again.
• Add dozens of chapters to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful initiative. Let's have the top program in America for keeping roadways free of trash. We live in one of the most beautiful states in the country. There's something that I can't help but notice when I'm on the road: We sure do like to trash it up. It makes me sad.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 06/30/2019
Eureka Springs Independent
Recent news that the State of Arkansas had reached a settlement to pay the owners of C&H Farms $6.2 million to shut down the confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) allowed to house up to 6,503 hogs was largely met with jubilation. This was after years of legal action and activism led by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance because of concerns that hog waste in lagoons and spread onto surrounding farm lands in the leaky karst terrain was resulting in pollution harmful to the Buffalo National River.
The CAFO received permits from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in 2012 under a cover of darkness. The public didn’t know about the facility until it was already under construction.
At the present time, spray fields surrounding the facility are above recommended levels for phosphorus, a nutrient that can cause excess algae blooms that harm water quality and aquatic life. People who treasure the Buffalo National River had been concerned about seeing more algae blooms the longer the CAFO was in operation. In addition to water pollution, few things smell worse than hog manure – particularly from thousands of hogs in a small area.
But the settlement also raises questions. First is the secrecy surrounding the deal. There was no public input into the use of taxpayer money to buy out the owners of C&H Farms, or terms of the settlement. While The Nature Conservancy had pledged to help with funding up to $1 million, most of the money comes from the taxpayers.
Litigation to close the facility could have gone on for years without the issue being resolved. But the nature of the settlement also raised concerns. As one river supporter put it, “The problem is what got us into this mess was what got us out of it. Political backroom deals.”
Did bad behavior pay? You could say C&H Farms not only got away with polluting the Buffalo River Watershed for years, but they won the lottery on the way out. Were the farm owners made millionaires off the deal? According to the National Parks and Conservation Association, the C&H facility received more than $3.4 million in loan guarantee assistance from the federal government in 2012. One assumes that had been paid down considerably in the past seven years. So, what were the additional millions for?
The three owners retain ownership but will put it in a conservation easement. Will that also be worth a considerable amount in tax credits?
The many people who dug deep into their pockets to fund the legal challenges to the hog factory are certainly not getting reimbursed. In addition to the settlement, taxpayers had already paid several million for studies done by the Big Creek Research and Extension Team. Taxpayers are the ones taking the hit for consistently ill-conceived, ill-advised actions and decisions.
Some concerns that have been raised by advocates for the Buffalo River watershed include:
A recent Facebook post said those who live in other watersheds should definitely worry. “Where will the next CAFO pop up? To a river community of less importance where they can get away with whatever they please? Man, with little to no regulation, we should all start a CAFO. The payout is great.”
Pam Kingfisher, Rose
Many neighbors protested well applications, as we know that our aquifers are porous.
We also know that Oklahoma Water Resources Board and Oklahoma Department of Agriculture don’t include a detailed geological investigation prior to permitting new poultry feeding operations.
In admitting permitting errors, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality cited “…water-quality issues and insufficient geological investigations into the karst terrain underneath the facility."
The hog farm should have conducted a "detailed geological investigation" of the karst topography where manure might be kept or applied as fertilizer, the Arkansas DEQ writes in its 10-page denial of an operating permit.
The state of Arkansas will buy out the hog farm for $6.2 million and then pay for and conduct the clean-up.
Arkansas will be paying for ADEQ’s mistakes for many years. Just as the good citizens of northeast Oklahoma will be paying for ODEQ and ODAFF’s lack of regulations for the rest of our lives.
Gov. Stitt should follow the prudent lead of Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson’s temporary ban on poultry and hog farms in the karst watershed.
Please stop the rubber stamping of permits. We must protect our aquifers for the future.
Pam Kingfisher, Rose
As we watch the Arkansas Hog Farm permitting boondoggle play out in the press this week, it’s heartbreaking to know that our OK agencies have no care for the citizens nor the environment of our region. Many neighbors protested well applications, as we know that our aquifers are porous. We also know that OWRB and ODAFF doesn’t include a detailed geological investigation prior to permitting new poultry feeding operations.
In admitting their permitting errors, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality states that “…water-quality issues and insufficient geological investigations into the karst terrain underneath the facility." The hog farm should have conducted a “detailed geological investigation” of the karst topography where manure might be kept or applied as fertilizer, the ADEQ writes in its 10-page “Statement of Basis” for denying the operating permit.
In this weeks’ announcement, the State of Arkansas will buy out the hog farm for $6.2 million and then pay for and conduct the clean-up. The good citizens of Arkansas will be paying for ADEQ’s mistakes for many years. Just as the good citizens of Northeast Oklahoma will be paying for ODEQ and ODAFF’s lack of regulations for the rest of our lives.
We are calling for Governor Stitt to follow the prudent lead of Arkansas Governor Hutchinson’s temporary ban on poultry and hog farms in the karst watershed of Northeast Oklahoma. Please stop the rubber stamping of permits. We must protect our Aquifers for the future.
Ft Smith Times Record
Brawner: With that big hog farm, it was time to fold ’em
by Steve Brawner
If you’re a red-blooded Arkansan, you know what words follow these: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to ...”
In “The Gambler,” it’s “fold ’em.” In politics and the legal environment, it sometimes is “settle,” as I’m sure Gov. Asa Hutchinson knows, along with the owners of C&H Farms.
Hutchinson and the farm owners realized it was time to walk away before it came time to run. So that’s what both sides did with an agreement to close that big hog farm near the Buffalo National River.
Hutchinson announced June 13 that the state would pay Richard and Phillip Campbell (the “C”) and Jason Henson (the “H”) $6.2 million to close the concentrated animal feeding operation located 6.6 miles from Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo National River. Of that, at least $5.2 million will come from the taxpayers, with the rest coming from private donations through The Nature Conservancy.
The governor announced the deal, hours after it had been reached, during a gathering of the Arkansas Municipal League.
The $6.2 million will let the farm’s owners pay off their debts and will compensate them for the business they are losing. They can keep the land and even use it a little, but they can’t raise hogs there under a “conservation easement.” Under the agreement, they have six months to completely close the hog farm.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson directed the Department of Environmental Quality to make permanent a temporary ban on new medium-sized and large farms in the watershed.
The owners received a permit in 2012 and the next year opened a farm raising up to 6,503 hogs, generating strong opposition from those who feared the waste would pollute the river. Hogs poop a lot.
In order to stay in business, the owners took extraordinary measures to keep hog waste from entering the watershed. Arkansas Farm Bureau became the operation’s staunch defenders.
Indeed, the farm potentially served as a demonstration project for how large-scale production can occur in close proximity to environmentally sensitive areas. With seven billion always-wanting-more humans on the planet, such situations sometimes may be hard to avoid.
But this wasn’t just any environmentally sensitive area, and opponents were not just anti-progress tree-huggers. This is the Buffalo National River, the nation’s first national river, the home to one of Arkansas’ most beautiful areas, and an important tourist draw for The Natural State. Generations have floated the Buffalo. It now has elevated levels of E. coli bacteria, though government agencies have not identified the farm as the source. If man’s activities sicken the river, it could take years, and many millions of man’s dollars, to make it well.
As Hutchinson said Thursday, the owners should not be blamed for obtaining a permit and then operating within its bounds. But that permit should never have been granted by the previous governor’s administration. It simply was not worth the risk.
Last year, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality rejected the farm’s application for a new operating permit, and of course the owners sued.
We don’t know who would have won in court. What was certain was this: It would have taken years. The state and the farmers would have spent millions in legal fees. The hog farm would have continued operating within close proximity of the river. The farmers would have continued to face unwanted controversy. The river’s supporters would have continued to focus their attention on protecting it rather than enjoying it.
Instead, we have a win-win-win-win-draw-win. The river is protected. The farmers were compensated. The state ended the lawsuit. The opponents can breathe easier. The taxpayers paid $5.2 million but potentially saved millions more in cleanup costs. And once the ban on future operations is made permanent, we don’t have to do this again.
It was time for everyone to settle and walk away. Or float away, in this case.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.
Council discusses payment to Arkansas hog farm; OK is tentative for $6.2M payout
by Michael R. Wickline | June 22, 2019
The Legislative Council on Friday granted conditional authority to its leaders to approve the governor's request to use up to $6.2 million in "rainy-day" funds to obtain a conservation easement to shut down a hog farm in the Buffalo National River watershed.
The council authorized its co-chairmen -- Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage -- to sign off on the governor's request only after the co-chairmen are satisfied the state has a first lien position on the easement, meaning the state would be superior to any other lien holder regarding the use of the land.
The action came after about 45 minutes of wide-ranging discussion on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to transfer the rainy-day funds to the Department of Arkansas Heritage for the easement. The governor typically requests approval regarding rainy-day funds, which are used in case of emergencies or for his priorities.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he wants to make sure that the conservation easement is in the first lien position ahead of any other liens for the property of C&H Hog Farms.
"We just have got to make sure that is done because, if that [isn't] done, we could possibly be throwing all this money away," he said. "I want to make sure that title work is done correctly before we authorize millions of dollars to be used for this purpose."
Arkansas Heritage Director Stacy Hurst said attorneys have represented their clients very well in this agreement and all parties are satisfied.
"It covers any debt that they have, any liens that they might incur, so I think all parties are satisfied that this is a safe agreement for all," she said.
"We'll have to finalize the full conservation easement, and I'll inquire whether or not that [easement in the first lien position] will be in there and I will let you know. This is a preliminary agreement and it does not have that language."
Afterward, Hutchinson said the "contract is clear that any debt on the property will be paid off and the state will have assurance from the title search that the conservation easement will be conveyed by the landowners free and clear of any liens.
"The resolution of the hog farm permit is widely supported in the General Assembly and I trust the funding will be approved," the Republican governor said in a written statement.
Hutchinson last week announced that C&H Hog Farms will close later this year under an agreement reached with him and Arkansas Heritage.
The large-scale hog farm has been in operation since 2013 and has faced public push-back ever since from environmental groups concerned about the possibility of hog manure ending up in the Buffalo River, the first river in the United States to be designated as a national river. The facility is located on Big Creek, 6.6 miles from where it flows into the Buffalo.
The creek and river are on the department's proposed list of impaired water bodies for E. coli, but no government agency has concluded that C&H is responsible for the bacteria's presence.
Upon the funding of an escrow account, C&H "shall cease insemination of sows and acquisition of swine and shall act as quickly as commercially reasonable, but shall have up to 180 ... days to fully shut down and allow for the regular grow-out cycle of piglets to be completed."
State Budget Administrator Jake Bleed told lawmakers Friday that state officials expect to be able to use about $1 million in private donations from the Nature Conservancy and use rainy-day funds for the rest of the $6.2 million purchase of the conservation easement.
The agreement between the state and farm allows for the purchase of a conservation easement in perpetuity on the 23-plus acres where C&H Hog Farms operates a concentrated animal feeding operation, and restricts the use of the land, Hurst said.
"Of course, the main restriction that will be placed is that there will be no ability to operate a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation]. There will be some limited farming that can be done there. They can have a house there, for example," she said. "All of that is outlined in the agreement that was released. There are three performance documents that are being finalized."
Afterward, Hurst said the three performance documents are the conservation easement language, a cleanup plan from the Department of Environmental Quality and an escrow agreement.
Earlier, she told lawmakers that the preliminary agreement gives performance measures will have to be satisfied by all parties and then C&H Farms will be able to access the funds that were placed in escrow in four to six months.
Wardlaw asked an official with the Department of Environmental Quality how much the cleanup will cost.
Michael Grappe, chief program officer for the department, said he didn't know, adding, "We haven't been on the site to assess it."
Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, who is a hog farmer, speculated it could cost the department up to $500,000 to clean out a waste lagoon.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked whether the C&H Hog Farms matter would set a precedent for other farms operating under permits from the Department of Environmental Quality.
Hurst said there are none in the Buffalo River watershed.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said he's worried that "we are using $5.2 million of public funds to take their farm.
"Since that farm has been there ... has there been one shred of scientific evidence that that farm was the source of any contamination in that river?" he asked.
Grappe said there is "nothing tied directly" to the farm.
Stubblefield asked if the state would continue to monitor the Buffalo River downstream from C&H to see if the water quality changes.
"There are plans to do that," Grappe said.
"I am dumbfounded that we would make a $6.2 million mistake and it costs the citizens of this state $6.2 million," Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, said. "Now, I don't blame the people that built the hog farm. I want to know, who is responsible for issuing that permit?"
Grappe said his department issued the permit under the previous administration of then-Gov. Mike Beebe.
"I think there is a sense that there was a mistake made and this attempt is to make that right," Bleed said.
Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, said C&H Hog Farms was granted a five-year operating permit by the state that was authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The farms' owners spent millions of dollars to build a facility to make a living "with the good faith of the state of Arkansas' agreement that they could do it."
Then the EPA revoked or discouraged the use of this permit when C&H Farms sought renewal of the permit and the required permit could not be granted by the state, Douglas said.
"So under this situation, we have individuals that invested millions of dollars on the good faith of the state of Arkansas and then they cannot get their permit renewed and they will go out of business and default through no fault of their own," he said. "There has been no water quality issues. That's not the issue here. The issue is they cannot get the permit that they were assured that they could to begin with and so this is just repaying damages to them because they won't be to operate and they will be foreclosed on, forced into bankruptcy, through no fault of their own."
Metro on 06/22/2019
Good news for river
It's been a remarkable week of good news from our state's natural treasure, the Buffalo River.
Good News No. 1 is the pending closure of the C&H hog farm, sending a clear signal to the world that the Natural State will make the effort to live up to its name. The costly reclamation of the site will have a high return on investment in the decades to come. Think of it as a preservation intervention, the chance to remove a potential pollution problem before it becomes manifest.
It's difficult to see the future sometimes, even when it's staring you in the face. This was the case in Good News No. 2, the river rescue by intrepid Park Service staff who braved the early morning flash-flood waters of June 7 and sped upriver to remove dozens of campers from imminent danger. A tragedy such as occurred at the Albert Pike campground some years ago was averted. Bravo to our first responders!
And Good News No. 3, though less dramatic than a daring rescue, is the assignment of Dark Sky status to the Buffalo River park. The quiet beauty of a starlit night sky, brilliantly ablaze with countless points of light, is a heritage that belongs to all people. It makes you proud to be here.
Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization
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