Everyone loves the Buffalo National River, and everyone supports caring for this Arkansas treasure. Opinions vary sharply, however, on what such care requires.
An industrial hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed currently threatens the destruction of the state's most iconic natural resource and risks a public health crisis in one of Arkansas' most impoverished places. Gov. Asa Hutchinson must act now to prevent further damage to the Buffalo and to protect those living in its watershed. He can do so by ordering subsurface drilling to determine definitively the presence of swine-waste contamination.
The Buffalo has been called Arkansas' gift to the nation, and all of us are stakeholders in this national park. But some communities have more at stake than others. The Buffalo flows primarily through Newton and Searcy counties, two of the poorest in the state and, indeed, the nation. In its 2012 authorization of the concentrated animal feeding operation on Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality failed to acknowledge the depth and persistence of poverty in these Ozarks highlands counties. This poverty, as well as lack of meaningful notice of the permit application, made the siting of the 6,500-hog operation--just across Big Creek from Mount Judea School--a textbook example of environmental injustice. Concerned citizens have since pushed for close governmental oversight of the CAFO.
Now, evidence presented to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in April indicates a "possible fracture and major movement of waste" beneath the CAFO's swine waste lagoons. This evidence is from Dr. Todd Halihan, an Oklahoma State University geologist with whom the Big Creek Research and Extension Team contracted to perform "non-invasive subsurface ... visualization." The Big Creek team receives state funds to monitor the CAFO's environmental impact, yet when Halihan's investigation suggested swine waste in the groundwater, it did not disclose it. Halihan's research saw the light of day only though Freedom of Information requests.
Halihan's findings demand a program of subsurface drilling to assess with certainty what is happening to the groundwater. The underground channels and conduits characteristic of the porous karst there can quickly transport E. coli, nitrates, and other toxins far and wide. If swine waste is reaching the groundwater, the health of area residents--many of whom rely on well water--is threatened.
Meanwhile, the CAFO is also undermining the region's economic well-being. The operation's owners initially promised to create local jobs and generate property-tax revenue, but the CAFO has done precious little of either. It pays just $7,000 in annual property taxes and, according to the CAFO owners, has created only eight jobs. Further, by undermining the health of the Buffalo itself, the CAFO is threatening the $56.6 million that ecotourism visitors spend annually, which generates nearly 900 jobs in gateway communities plus substantial sales-tax revenue.
Three years after the CAFO began operating, mounting evidence indicates that it is severely damaging the Buffalo. In addition to the threat of groundwater contamination, the swine-waste application fields along Big Creek are at "above optimum" levels of phosphorus, according to University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension soil tests. Storms churn up and release phosphorus-laden clay as turbidity into the Buffalo.
If the governor visited the confluence of Big Creek with the Buffalo, he would see the damage firsthand, visible as it is to the naked eye. Yet the Department of Environmental Quality appears to be in denial about this devastation, turning a blind eye to all data except that generated by the Big Creek team. But the team has a conflict of interest because it also consults with the CAFO on issues of sustainability. This conflict is well-illustrated by the team's failure to make timely disclosure of Halihan's troubling findings. In refusing to collaborate with those who should be natural allies in stewardship of the Buffalo, the state ignores available, objective scientific data that paint a more complete picture of the damage wrought by the CAFO.
Governor Hutchinson must act now to ensure the well-being of the Buffalo River watershed and its residents. No less than with Flint, Michigan's water crisis, the health of highly vulnerable citizens is at stake, and a governor has the power to protect them. In Arkansas' case, an executive order mandating a program of investigative drilling would kill the proverbial two birds with one stone, also helping prevent further ruination of a wilderness gem.
In his comments to the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission last month, former Congressman Ed Bethune cautioned, "if we turn out to be the people who have to report to the world that there's hog doin's in the Buffalo, it's going to be a sad day for Arkansas."
It will be an even sadder day if the governor's failure to investigate creates a public health crisis in the watershed.
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My co-author was Marti Olesen, a 26-year resident of Newton County and a retired public school media specialist.
For more on the science at issue with respect to the hog farm and Dr. Hallihan's work, KUAF's Ozarks at Large series filed this excellent story.