A 6,500 swine hog farm’s waste management may be negatively impacting the water quality of the Buffalo National River near Mt. Judea, according to findings from an independent environmental research team led by a UofA hydrogeologist.
After a year and a half of conducting tests and gathering data on water flow, water quality and the geology of the area surrounding the C&H Hog Farm, UA hydrogeologist Van Brahana and his team have found the Buffalo River found higher number of microbes and nutrients, oxygen levels are decreasing and trace metals (such as zinc and copper, found in feed) appear to be high-spreading.
On April 20, a short presentation of the findings from the Karst Hydrogeology of the Buffalo National River (KHBNR) water quality study will be made by Brahana at the Fayetteville Public Library on April 20 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Questions and answers will follow. The event is free and open to the public, and light refreshments will be served.
“I think it is important that our community be educated about what’s going on with the Buffalo River,” Brahana said. “In my opinion these are very serious concerns, and the practical items we can learn from this is if you look at this and it makes sense to you, I feel it will enable people to become more active in governing and allowing government agencies to evaluate things.”
In an effort to spread the lore and history of the Buffalo River to the masses, Kelly and Donna Mulhollan of Still on the Hill will be performing a few of their songs they’ve written for “Still a River,” an album of original songs dedicated to the river.
“We are very concerned about the impact of the hog farm and wanted to do something about it,” Kelly said. “We figured the best way to make a contribution to the effort is to celebrate the river and give people a sense of the history behind the region they might not know about it. Our idea is if people love the river, they’ll be good stewards to the river.”
Eventually, the group hopes to do a river tour of sorts to provide free concerts to the communities surrounding the Buffalo River. The duo are in the midst of a fundraiser to gather enough donations through their website, stillonthehill.com. The project is partnered with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, and donations are tax deductible.
Many of the album’s songs are based on the works of Ken Smith, who’s written a lot about the Buffalo River.
“The stories that he tells about the Buffalo River’s history and people are so beautiful, that I’ve been gleaning the stories and turning his stories into song,” Donna said.
C&H Hog Farm, Buffalo River, Karst Controversy
Here’s a refresher to the events surrounding the April 20 presentation.
C&H hog facility, five miles from the edge of the Buffalo River and nearby to the Mt. Judea school, was approved by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in 2011 to house 6,503 pigs in 2,500 pens. An animal facility of that size is called a Confined Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO. The facility was built in 2013, and many residents nearby were unaware it was being built until it was nearly complete. Laws have since been improved to provide better notice to nearby residents of such facilities.
The manure beneath the pig pens is transferred to a waste lagoon that’s rated to hold about 2 million gallons of raw sewage annually, or about the amount of waste a city of 30,000 people creates. From there, trucks pump the waste into holding tanks and drive out to 600 acres of pasture to spray the waste out into the fields as a fertilizing method, called a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) as allowed by state permit. However, half of the field lies nearby in the floodplain of Big Creek, which is a river that empties into the Buffalo River. Airborne waste emissions polluting the air nearby Mt. Judea inhabitants breathe in are also a concern, but restrictions on air quality are lax for such operations.
The fields that are used to spray the waste to fertilize the fields are believed to be located atop karst geology — which means the land has a thin topsoil above very porous rocky (in this case chert and limestone) ground — and would be unable to handle the amount of nutrient spray to properly filter the toxic bacteria from the manure in the soil. In a karst environment, ground water moves rapidly alongside surface water, and can be difficult to predict how and where it flows. So, there is concern that the waste being sprayed near Big Creek could seep into the ground water and pollute the Buffalo River, which is a federally preserved river.
However, the hog facility has been approved for all necessary permits by ADEQ to operate. In an environmental assessment, the two agencies that conducted it, the Small Business Association and Farm Service Agency, denied that the hog farm and its NMP fields sit atop karst geology.
Brahana explained in a letter to the ADEQ that they only considered surface water in their first environmental assessment. In a karst environment, often times surface and ground water run together because of the porous nature of the underground limestone.
In early 2016, the Patagonia Foundation awarded a grant to the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) to help fund the KHBNR project. KHBNR is an independent research project which assesses and documents the water quality of surface and groundwater as it flows across and through karst underground to the Buffalo National River.
“The Buffalo River belongs to all of us, and it’s such a lovely natural setting. I used to take all of my classes on a float trip each semester,” Brahana said. “My concern is that this concentrated amount of animal waste, if people are swimming in the water some of those contaminants may impact public health.
“The question that if I know it’s going to happen for sure, it appears that it’s very likely. My concern is they’re not looking at the groundwater, at the karst. By omitting those studies, it appears to be making a special interest decision.”