As evidence grew of the degradation of Buffalo National River and its tributaries as a result of waste from 6,503 hogs at C&H Farms, there continued to be denials from the farm owners and state officials that there was any proof that the large amount of liquid hog waste was responsible for algae blooms and decreasing water quality in the Buffalo River. With the huge confined animal feeding operation backed by the politically powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau and its large legal defense fund, opponents had been frustrated with efforts to protect the country’s first national river.
On June 7, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) and the Arkansas Canoe Club filed a notice of intent to sue C&H for alleged violations of the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA). About a week later, there was a surprise victory in the battle to save the Buffalo River when Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an agreement for the state and The Nature Conservancy to pay $6.2 million to C&H Farms to close the hog factory.
“In my time in the Ozarks for forty years, I don’t recall anything of this magnitude,” Gordon Watkins, president of BRWA, said. “We had been told by attorneys that with no gross violations at the facility, there was very little chance of shutting it down. I don’t know if this is a precedent for the state or the nation, but I think it is a pretty big accomplishment. It was very significant. Congratulations to everyone who has been involved in the past six years. It has been a team effort to get it done.”
Watkins said BRWA was created because of C&H and had two goals: shut C&H down and put in place a permanent moratorium on hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed.
“We feel confident those will be done by the end of the year,” he said. “One without the other is meaningless. We can’t imagine the state would have invested this money if there weren’t assurance that another hog factory would not pop up in the neighborhood. We always felt the permanent moratorium would be the best thing and are glad the governor agreed.”
Land surrounding the farm will be put under a conservation easement restricting its further usage. The agreement gives C&H 180 days to close the facility, after which the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) will be responsible for cleanup, including closure of the waste lagoons.
Watkins said they were not involved in the negotiations, but knew there were discussions of some type of acquisition or closure of the farm. In the fiscal session 2018, there were discussions in the Arkansas Legislature about a financial package. While some people have grumbled about the owners of the C&H Farm walking away with a big cash payoff, Watkins said most people have been elated by the news that the farm is closing.
“From our perspective, we just want to see the thing shut down, the sooner the better,” Watkins said. “It was obvious the legal battle was just going to go on and on and on, probably for years. We were really grateful to the governor for resolving this quickly.”
About two weeks ago the Arkansas Supreme Court had agreed to hear an appeal regarding the C&H permit. Watkins said they like to think that, combined with the Notice of Intent to Sue, had an impact on the closure.
“At the very least, it gave a signal that we were not giving up and were prepared to pursue it as long as necessary,” Watkins said. “There were also some wins during the legislative session that probably helped push the negotiations along. There is going to be a public comment period for the closure plan. The ADEQ is going to put that out for public comments and that will be a way to have input on how it is closed.
“What we want is some ongoing monitoring of Big Creek, which empties into the Buffalo River. There is a phenomenon called legacy phosphorus. It builds up in the soil and is released for a long time period of time, sometimes decades. All the fields surrounding the farms are saturated with phosphorus. All those are above optimum for phosphorus and that will continue to released during rains and through shallow soils into the groundwater and Big Creek.”
The issue was considered important not just for the environment, but for state tourism revenues. The 2018 National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects Report estimates that 1.2 million visitors spent $54.9 million in the region while visiting Buffalo National River this last year.
Hutchinson reported initially offer the farm owners less than $6.2 million and reached out for help from The Nature Conservancy, which is expected to provide less than $1 million towards the settlement. Most of the money is designated to come from the governor’s discretionary funds and the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
To watch the governor’s statement made at a meeting of the Arkansas Municipal League, go to youtu.be/YXnXFIfz6k. For a link to the BRWA lawsuit over alleged CWA violations, go to the website: buffaloriveralliance.org/resources/Documents/PRESS%20RELEASE%20%20CWA%20Notice%20of%20Intent.pdfTo see a copy of the settlement agreement, go to buffaloriveralliance.org/resources/Documents/closure.pdf.