The issues surrounding the Buffalo National River and a nearby 6,500 hog farm near Mt. Judea, Ark. that was built in a fragile watershed environment keep coming.
Following evidence found by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) in April 2016, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has agreed to perform investigative drilling around the C&H ponds to determine if, as suggested by electrical imaging studies, the farm’s nearby hog manure ponds are leaking, and to what extent.
Initially, the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET) from the University of Arkansas’s agriculture division— which is being annually paid $300,000 in tax funds for five years to aggressively monitor the hog factory’s discharges — found evidence of a large, wet plume 120 feet below one corner of a manure lagoon. This wasn’t known until the BRWA filed a Freedom of Information Act and revealed the findings.
Many perceive BCRET to be interested in finding how the factory can co-exist in what’s believed to be a karst environment — a porous land formation where ground and surface water rapidly flow together — rather than determine if the factory is in violation or a danger to the watershed, said Gordon Watkins, president of the BRWA.
“The drilling is the latest spike in concerns in where the farm is,” Watkins said. “The drilling doesn’t resolve the issue of how it shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
After an on-and-off again situation with the ADEQ and the owners of C&H Hog Farms, it’s been settled that the drilling will commence Sept. 19. However, the BRWA finds it unsatisfactory that there will only be one drill hole being made to test for leaking, where to effectively check would require at least two more. They were also denied an observer by the ADEQ, but agreed to an independent observer chosen by the drilling contractor.
The hog farm will soon be in the process of applying for a Regulation 5 permit, which is a state-regulated permit that would allow the farm to operate in perpetuity. It currently operates under a Regulation 6 permit that expires on Oct. 31, which is a federally administered permit established by the EPA and needs to be re-applied for every three years. The EPA could overrule the ADEQ in this situation, whereas the EPA has no authority over a Regulation 5 permit. Once the ADEQ comes to a draft decision on the permit application, it will enter a 30 day public comment period.
“We’ll have the opportunity to critique every aspect of that application,” Watkins said. “The nutrient management plan, the fact it’s sitting on karst, its proximity to the Buffalo National River — all of the issues we’d think argue against a facility like this to be permitted in that location. We’re prepared to pursue that as far as we need to to have the permit denied and have the facility close and make sure this wrongheaded decision is made right.”
Additionally, three women — grandmas, as a matter of fact — in Newton County are appealing independently against ADEQ’s decision to allow Ellis Campbell farms to receive upwards of 6.5 million gallons of manure from C&H to be spread for fertilizer in their fields. The three are concerned the waste could potentially spread the issue of watershed contamination 10 miles up river, said Lin Wellford, one of the three women appealing ADEQ.
“We want our grandkids to have safe beautiful places to recreate,” she said. “I don’t think we’re getting told the truth. The pork council can say whatever they want, the farm bureau can say what they want and the ADEQ can say what they want, but the Buffalo is telling a different story. Who are we going to believe?”
A few events by the BRWA are planned to spread awareness about the Buffalo River situation, as well as a fundraiser to help the grandmas and their upcoming legal fees, which will be Oct. 9, 5 p.m. at Caribe on Highway 62 in Eureka Springs. Several concerts by Fayetteville’s Still on the Hill are planned throughout Newton County and Northwest Arkansas.
“If we want to protect the water of the Buffalo River, we have to stay vigilant,” said Ginny Masullo, a boardmember of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “We have an opportunity to prevent rather than clean up.”
C&H Hog Farm, Buffalo River, Karst Controversy
If this is the first you’ve heard of the controversy, here’s a refresher to the events surrounding the Buffalo River watershed.
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.
Van Brahana, a karst geology expert, 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.
Upcoming Buffalo River Events
Still A River – Free Concert by Still on the Hill, Ponca
Still on the Hill will perform a free concert at Ponca Church on the North end of town near the Ponca Creek Bridge Sept. 24 at 2:00 p.m.
ADEQ Public Hearing on Regulation 6 Application
Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6:00 p.m., at Jones Center for Families, 922 E. Emma Ave., Springdale, AR 72764
Still A River – Free Concert by Still on the Hill, Harrison
Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theater on the Harrison square.
Still A River – Free Concert by Still on the Hill, Eureka Springs
Thursday, Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at The Auditorium in Eureka Springs.
Still A River – Free Concert by Still on the Hill, Springdale
Oct. 15 at 2:00 p.m. at the Shiloh Museum 118 W. Johnson Ave, Springdale