Decreased water quality and algae blooms on the Buffalo National River this summer have caused concerns to opponents of a 6,503-head hog farm operated by C&H near Big Creek about six miles from where it flows into the Buffalo River. Leading the opposition is the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) formed after C&H received permits in 2012 with what opponents said was completely inadequate public notice.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) received thousands of comments opposing the hog farm being located in a karst region where fractures in the ground provide a route for surface contamination to spread to groundwater, wells, springs, streams and lakes. C&H farm became a hot spot for a number of environmental studies looking at impacts of waste from the farm.
And now ADEQ has issued a draft decision to deny a no-discharge permit under the Arkansas Water and Air Pollution Control Act. ADEQ is soliciting public comments until Oct. 17 on the proposal to deny the permit. Comments can be sourced at www.adeq.state.ar.us.
Gordon Watkins, president of the BRWA, said they are telling supporters that they are pleased that ADEQ, in its Statement of Basis for denying the C&H permit, has laid out an even stronger rationale than was presented in January, particularly when coupled with revisions to their responses to the previous public comments which bolster their Statement of Basis.
“It appears that both the revisions and Statement of Basis are largely in response to comments from BRWA and others which pointed to non-compliance with regulatory guidance documents as well as the recent draft decision declaring Big Creek and adjacent segments of the Buffalo impaired for low dissolved oxygen and pathogens,” Watkins said. “We have long said that science should lead decision making in regards to the C&H permit and we have previously submitted evidence of environmental impact. Now ADEQ accepts clear scientific evidence of serious environmental impacts to these stream segments attributable to nutrient overloading within the past few years.”
Watkins said by far the single largest source of the overloading in this area is C&H, which has spread more than 14 million gallons of raw swine waste on surrounding fields since 2013.
“We fully support the denial and BRWA will be resubmitting its previous technical comments as well as new information which has come to light in recent months, including the draft Clean Water Act 303d report of impaired streams and information contained in expert reports and depositions made available during the permit appeals process,” Watkins said. “We are currently preparing our comments and will be posting a draft on our website (www.buffaloriveralliance.org) soon. Meanwhile, for those who wish to comment now, we encourage commenters to support ADEQ’s Statement of Basis and BRWA and other organization’s previous comments in support of denial.”
Denial of the permit is opposed by the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which says the issue is about far more than C&H, and could led to restrictions on other farm operations in the state.
“We just think when you let emotion make decisions instead of science you are setting a bad precedent,” said Steve Eddington, vice president of public relations, Arkansas Farm Bureau. “For example, there are an awful lot of farms in Arkansas that operate on karst topography, and they have been there for decades. There are in fact procedures on how to deal with farm operations on karst. An argument seems to be suddenly that because this farm is located on karst topography, it can’t operate. How or why is this farm any different from those other farms who have been operating in the karst for decades?”
Eddington said he thinks if the proposed permit is denied causing the hog farm to close, that would be tragic.
“Our argument all along has been to let science rule,” Eddington said. “You can cherry pick data all you want and say this means that. And that isn’t how science works. It is a very emotional thing and I understand that. I’ve floated the Buffalo since we moved to Arkansas when I was in the sixth grade. It appears the argument gets framed like you have to be either for the Buffalo River or for C&H. That is just a short sighted and narrow view of world, in my opinion. I think you can be for both.”
C&H co-owner Jason Henson, in an interview with KOLR-10 television in Springfield, Mo., in January, denied the operation is harming the Buffalo River.
“Unfortunately, people are looking over the science and listening to emotion,” Henson said in the interview. “I think it’s political because the science is there to prove that we’re not doing anything wrong.”
In the permit denial, the ADEQ discusses the finding that parts of both Big Creek and the Buffalo River are impaired for the pathogen E. Coli and for dissolved oxygen. ADEQ concludes C&H may be contributing to those poor water quality indicators.
“In addition to this proposed listing of Big Creek and the Buffalo National River as impaired water bodies, the Big Creek Research Extension Team has documented an increase in nitrate-N near the facility,” the ADEQ said in its Statement of Basis for denying the permit. “In the April 1 to June 30, 2018 Quarterly Report, BCRET presented data that documents a statistically significant increase of nitrate-N in the ephemeral stream and the house well since 2014. Increased nitrate-N in both the ephemeral stream and the house well suggests that these systems may be hydrologically connected to areas where farm activities take place.”
ADEQ also said data supplied from C&H shows that soil phosphorus for all fields receiving sprayed hog waste exceed recommended levels.
EPA says nutrient pollution caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems. “Nutrient pollution has impacted many streams, rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters for the past several decades, resulting in serious environmental and human health issues, and impacting the economy,” EPA said.
Opponents of the hog operation have listed significant economic and environmental concerns. In January, USA Today listed the Buffalo River as the number one tourist attraction in Arkansas. A National Park Service report concludes the 1.5 million visitors to Buffalo National River in 2017 spent $62.6 million in communities near the park. The Park Service said that spending supported 911 jobs in the area.
Written comments on the draft denial and requests for information regarding the draft denial may be submitted to ADEQ, Attn: C&H Draft Denial at 5301 Northshore Drive, North Little Rock, AR, 72118-5317, or by email at Water-Draft-Permit Comment@adeq.state.ar.us. There will also be a public hearing Oct. 9 at 5 p.m. at ADEQ, 5301 Northshore Drive in North Little Rock.