Our Buffalo and the hog farm
Those in Northwest Arkansas during the late 1990s likely recall the firestorm of public outcry to the state’s politicized decision (eventually reversed) to permit a landfill on one side of Hobbs Mountain near Durham.
It was unbelievable to me when the public learned how the state’s environmental quality department, of all people, had actually permitted a landfill above the White River, wellspring to Beaver Lake, the region’s water supply.
Now comes what, for me and many petitioners across Arkansas, is an equally outrageous approval by our state, one so questionable and seemingly rushed that even the federal government is asking what the heck’s up here.
I’m talking about the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s decision in August to grant a permit for what would become a sprawling hog farm along Big Creek only five miles before it spills into the Buffalo National River.
Big Creek flows adjacent to the Mount Judea schools deep within that breathtaking Buffalo watershed that motorists ogle as they travel the Ozarks along Arkansas 7 between Russellville and Jasper.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency subsequently approved a loan for the project and forwarded its required environmental assessment on the project to the National Park Service office.
In a letter dated February 27, Kevin G. Cheri, director of the Buffalo National River, accuses the Farm Services Agency of failing to follow its own regulations by presenting a woefully incomplete and contradictory environmental assessment of the proposed farm.
Cheri outlines 45 problem areas where he says the sister federal agency was out of compliance, inconsistent and downright nonfactual in its assessment that claimed (without a shred of scientific evidence or study) that the proposed industrial C&H Hog Farms would not have a significant impact on the environment or nearby Buffalo River.
First off, Cheri says the cover sheet sent to his office referred to the Park Service as a “cooperating agency,” which it was not. Cheri’s office, he says, never received word of the assessment document, much less endorsed it, which meant the regulations that require such notification to cooperating agencies such as the Park Service were ignored.
Among the more flagrant problems of the 45 that Cheri cites about the environmental assessment:
It didn’t follow requirements set forth in two specific regulations.
It says the proposed hog farm would consist of 478.93 acres. However, a nutrient management plan says potent hog waste would be spread across 630 acres with 23 additional acres for barns and waste ponds.
While the assessment is supposed to describe “regulatory compliance,” that section was left blank, as was the section that deals with the manner in which the assessment is organized.
Under the heading “proposed action,” the assessment indicates there would “be only 2,500 hogs on the farm. The 3 boars and 4,000 pigs that will be on the farm after the first litter cycle apparently do not count,” writes Cheri, adding that the nutrient management plan accounts for 6,503 swine. “This is an inconsistency in the documentation that is not explained,” he writes.
Cheri says he and his staff also are concerned that the environmental assessment doesn’t bother describing where any affected environments are located, and that it is unsupported by any scientific reviews, documents or professional judgments, but rather is based on the opinions of the writer.
“By granting the loan without following through, [Farm Services Agency] violated their own regulations,” and failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act, Cheri says. That alone could include gray bats from a nearby cave and the rabbitsfoot freshwater mussel that could be threatened if Big Creek and the Buffalo become polluted with animal waste.
“Based on the significant number and degree of deficiencies identified within this [environmental assessment], we [believe] this project needs to be halted until we and the public and other stakeholders are afforded an opportunity to comment.” Cheri’s findings conclude: “… this project has the potential to significantly impact public safety and values.”
No kidding! Why does this matter to us, my friends? Because the Buffalo National River was the first to be declared as such, with the intention of preserving the stream and its ecosystem as a precious natural treasure.
As the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance website urges: “… seek policies that will build a wall around the Buffalo River watershed. If we lose this, we lose a part of ourselves.”
The state’s Pollution Control and Ecology Commission was scheduled to convene yesterday in Little Rock. Its members probably got an earful about this proposed hog farm’s potential threats to the Buffalo watershed, as well they should have, although this group can’t stop the permit.
It’s up to we the people of Arkansas to preserve this God-given wonder by serving as diligent stewards, which certainly includes battling contamination from mountains of hog waste. So join me and others now in speaking up to help preserving this remarkable gift.
Mike Masterson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at mikemastersonsmessenger.com.