Sunday, May 12, 2013

Industrial hog farm in the Ozarks a done deal, but no one seems to be responsible for it

Farrowing barn at C & H Farm, photographed from Mount Judea School. 
I wrote (here and here) a few months ago about a proposed industrial hog farm in Newton County, Arkansas.  The massive hog farrowing operation made news--even state and regional news, such as here and here--because of the unusually skimpy notice process followed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in granting a General Permit for Concentrated Feeding Operations (CAFO) to C & H Hog Farm.  The permit and the process behind it also attracted attention--and ire from many local stakeholders--because the CAFO is in the watershed of the Buffalo National River.  Indeed, not even the National Park Service nor its officials overseeing the park locally received notice that the permit for the 6500-hog farm was being sought for a site just six miles from the scenic river, which is a popular tourist destination in the region.

Various formal and informal entities, including the National Park Service and some grassroots organizations, were soon up in arms over the decision.  The National Park Service wrote a letter to ADEQ in February articulating 45 irregularities in the permitting process.  ADEQ responded in late March with a 33-page letter, responding point by point to the discrepancies the National Park Service had enumerated.  ADEQ's executive director, Linda Newkirk, signed the letter, which she said responded as best the agency could to some of the "innuendo and conjecture" in the NPS letter.  Newkirk also stated firmly that ADEQ would not conduct an additional environmental impact assessment.  The permit was granted based on a "finding of no significant impact" by the Farm Service Agency.  ADEQ has authority to grant such permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Meanwhile a group of concerned citizens associated with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance lobbied the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in Little Rock on March 22, seeking to have the Commission revoke the farm's permit or otherwise intervene.  The Commission chair responded simply that ADEQ and C & H Hog Farm had followed the letter of the law.  Read more here.

Because the permit was granted in August, 2012, and the hog farm was nearly complete by the time it came to widespread public attention in February, prospects for stopping the facility--which by then was nearly complete--seemed slim.  In March, ADEQ announced it would hold a public meeting in Newton County in May, but that meeting was more to inform residents and to respond to questions.  ADEQ did not hold out any real likelihood that the decision would be reversed, stating:
We want to visit the community to provide information in person and hopefully answer some questions that have been raised about the operation and how our permitting process works.  
An overflow crowd gathered at that May 8 meeting, with law enforcement positioned to keep order and direct traffic.

ADEQ Director Teresa Marks stated at the meeting that the agency "didn't know [the permit applicant's notice of intent] would cause this kind of outcry," but that the agency had communicated some with the  county by way of response to many emails and phone calls about the permit.  Marks said that the same provisions "apply to general permits all over the state," with no exceptions for places like the Buffalo River watershed.  Acknowledging that many in attendance disagree, she said "You may feel that way and you have the right to talk to your legislators to make sure they treat [the Buffalo] differently."  

The headline for the story in the Newton County Times is "ADEQ explains limits of authority, and it reminds me of an earlier headline in which the Newton County Quorum Court (the Arkansas name for the county board of supervisors), disclaimed any responsibility for the farm, nor any power to stop it.  (Read more here). It's as if these lower scales of government--especially the state via ADEQ--are saying "the devil made me do it," and the devil in this case is the federal government which sets the environmental standards for such permits. Ironically, the federal government also oversees the Buffalo National River, which stands to lose greatly from the hog farm.

Signs in "downtown" Mount Judea, across
from the school, direct drivers to the hog farm.
Newton County Times coverage of this meeting does a better job than I have seen elsewhere explaining why the permit application process did not require local notice.  The story quotes an Arkansas Water Engineer, John Bailey, who explained that while state permits require notice in a local newspaper, this is a federal permit simply administered by the state and therefore requires neither notice in a local newspaper nor a public meeting.  The CAFO permit will have to be renewed in five years.  When the permit is up for renewal, the phosphorous index for the soil will be measured, and if it indicates over-application of manure, "a decision will have to be made based on either best management practices" or the inclusion of additional land on which the manure can be spread.

Marks remained firm at the meeting regarding the agency's refusal to re-visit any aspect of the process, including the details of the environmental impact assessment.  This is in spite of some contrary scientific opinions about how the 630 acres set aside for manure spreading are likely to "cope" with the manure generated by thousands of hogs.  The facility is already housing 850 sows and three boars, with the first litter of pigs expected in August.

Marks noted that a water monitoring station exists on Big Creek, just above its flow into the Buffalo.  She said inspectors will be available to respond to any complaints and that she expected this "to be one of the most closely watched hog farms in the United States."
Entrance to C & H Farm; just up the driveway is
a "No Trespassing" sign.   

The Times story featured a text box with quotes from the meeting, absent the context in which they were spoken.  A few of the more interesting ones follow:
  • Who's going to compensate the land owners near Mount Judea for the loss of property values?
  • There are industries all over the state that people don't want, but they are actually necessary.  So, what we [ADEQ] try to do is to make sure there's no environmental harm that comes from these industries.  We don't regulate odor.
  • The minimum distance a hog farm should be from a community or school should be at least five miles.  I see the school system closing down because of air quality.   (Read more here on the proximity of the hog farm to the Mount Judea school).

Earlier on the day of the ADEQ meeting, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance held a public meeting at the Buffalo Theater on the Jasper square.  They presented a film about commercial hog farming to a packed house and had a panel discussion about the health risks, economic impact on property values, inadequacies of the permit process, and the lack of transparency regarding the CAFO permit process.

Photos of C & H Hog Farm and neighboring area by Lisa Pruitt, April, 2013.

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