Along the back roads of Newton County Arkansas in a little town called Mount Judea, an industrial hog farm operates inside one of the most delicate watersheds in the state, the Buffalo National River. C&H Hog Farm is a concentrated animal feeding operation (a CAFO). The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) issued permits that allow the facility to house over 6,500 hogs. The controversy lies in the CAFO’s location and the nutrient management plan that allows raw hog waste to be collected in lagoons and sprayed over acres of nearby hay fields. C&H Hog Farm is only 1.6 miles from Big Creek, which is a tributary of the Buffalo National River a mere 6 miles away.
The Buffalo National River spans 135 miles over the rugged countryside of Arkansas. People travel from all over the country to enjoy swimming, canoeing, fishing, and exploring America’s first National River. According to the National Park Service, tourism along the Buffalo River brought in $38,000,000 to local communities in 2011. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers classify both the Buffalo National River and Big Creek as an Extraordinary Resource Water-body (ERW).
Jason Henson, Richard Campbell, and Phillip Campbell are the owners of C&H Hog Farm. The swine and facility are owned by JBS, an International meat company. The Campbell and Henson families have lived in Mount Judea for nine generations. The families hold the position that their land rights and the legally issued permits to run the farm outweigh the arguments of those in opposition. They believe that much of the controversy stems from a lack of understanding about how the family run farm operates.
The waste lagoons at C&H Hog Farm were designed with liners that exceed the EPA requirements in efforts to protect the environment. The owner’s of the farm have undergone a considerable amount of scrutiny over their nutrient management plan to ensure that they are within the guidelines.
Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality states that C&H Hog Farm “complies with all environmental safety provisions.”
A farmer being able to manage many animals in a small space easily is one of the benefits of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. C&H Hog Farm owns and operates on less than 24 acres, while the farm’s nutrient management plan (NMP) allows a vac-tanker vehicle to spread untreated hog waste on over 550 acres of land.
The CAFO produces 2,090,181 gallons of wastewater and manure every year, which is close to the amount of waste generated by a major city in Arkansas.
According to an article in Applied Soil Ecology, written by Pratt, “Commercial disposal of animal wastes by application to agricultural soils is well-known to increase soil nutrient concentrations and the potential for water pollution.”
Arkansas Times posted an article with aerial pictures of C&H Hog Farm taken by photographer Kat Wilson.
While the dispute continues to grow, there are still clear supporters of the farm in the Mount Judea area. Sharon Pierce, a retired teacher from Mount Judea, taught Jason Henson, and his cousins Phillip and Richard Campbell in High School. She describes them as being intelligent, conscientious students that have grown into caring people who are contributing members of the Mount Judea community.
“I don’t have a problem with the hog farm. I wouldn’t care if it was not here except that there are several families now living off of that. There are not very many industries in Newton County,” said Pierce. “The hog farm donates money to different organizations to help out. The owners volunteer at the County Fair, and they’re very involved in community activities.”
Pierce believes the owners of the farm are doing everything they can to prevent harm to the environment resulting from their operation.
“They’ve hunted here, fished here, they live here,” said Pierce. “You don’t mess up your own home, and Mount Judea, in Newton County is their home.”
The Other Side
Many oppose the farm, and those people are making concentrated efforts to stop C&H Hog Farm from operating inside the Buffalo River Watershed. Some people are so dedicated that they work ten and twelve hours a day gathering documents, attending meetings, taking water samples, conducting dye tracing tests, and all without compensation.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) was formed in response to the CAFO opening in the watershed with the purpose of protecting the Buffalo National River from pollutants resulting from the farm’s operations. The BRWA website has become a document repository containing extensive research, records, comments, links, maps, photos, videos, and facts about C&H Hog Farm and the regulatory agencies involved with their permitting.
Environmental groups are speaking out against C&H Hog Farm’s nutrient management plan because it allows the use of swine manure collected in the waste lagoons to be used to fertilize land next to Big Creek. Gordon Watkins is one of Arkansas’ oldest organic farmers. He is the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.
Watkins says, “What they (C&H Hog Farm) are calling a nutrient management plan, we would contend that it is a waste disposal plan.” He explains why in the audio podcast below.
Stewards of the Land
There are long-standing resentments towards the federal government surrounding the Buffalo National River that has been a part of Newton County history for generations. These feelings play a significant role in today’s fight over who is in control over what happens regarding the river.
Jeannie Sayers grew up in Newton County, and she lived through the era in the 1960’s, and 1970’s when the National Park Service got very involved with people who lived along the Buffalo River. In the 60’s, the Ozark Society fought against damning the Buffalo. After a decade-long battle, the victory made the Buffalo a National River and brought with it the authority of the National Park Service.
Making the Buffalo a National River came at a high price for the families that had cared for the land for over 100 years because the National Park Service used a law called, “eminent domain” to force people who lived along the river off their land.
“There was a lot of resentment over that. People were treated as dumb hillbillies, and yet they were the people who had preserved the land for 150 years. That generation really resented that, and their children and grandchildren still do. And the thing with the hog farm and the government interference, and environmental club interference has brought a lot of that back up to the surface,” said Sayers.
Sayers said she has strong feelings should other CAFO’s move in and run within the same watershed.
“It’s a little bit too close, and it’s too massive of an operation. But it’s legal, and they are doing what they’re supposed to do, so I am kind of on both sides of the fence. But I think it’s up to us to change those laws. We need to change the rules, but as long as they are within the law they have the right to operate,” said Sayers.
The Governor’s office has received scores of letters from concerned citizens about C&H Hog Farm. On September 30, 2016, Governor Asa Hutchinson revealed the formation of the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee. The committee is composed of the Arkansas Department of Health, Department of Parks and Tourism, Natural Resource Commission, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Environmental Quality. Hutchinson made it clear that the committee is not a regulatory agency.
The EPA has issued $107,000 grant to the Governor’s new Beautiful Buffalo Action Committee for start-up and to begin their operations. The committee is responsible for creating a plan to get scientific information and to educate while relying on counties and landowners to take voluntary actions when needed. The Buffalo River Watershed consists of 870,000 acres.
The Big Creek Research and Extension Team is a government-funded program that receives $300,000 each year to conduct research related to the C&H Hog Farm and the water quality of Big Creek and the Buffalo National River.
Algae can grow for many different reasons, but high levels of nitrates and phosphorus in the watershed are a contributing factor.
Carol Bitting, a Newton County resident, remembers playing in the Buffalo River as a child when her family held reunions at Buffalo Point.
“I still remember swimming underwater with my eyes open and seeing my cousin’s legs and everybody kicking and playing and my dad with all of us out in the water,” said Bitting.
On September 15th, 2016, Carol floated her canoe down the Buffalo on an 11 and a half mile stretch from Gilbert to South Maumee where she met shore-to-shore algae that stopped her canoe.
“I have never seen the Buffalo like that,” said Bitting. “It was a very sad trip.”
In the video below Carol shares details of the canoe trip and gives information about the testing she and other volunteers continue to do within the Buffalo River Watershed.
Testing to find out if the algae are linked to the swine waste from C&H Hog Farms will be costly. There is no word yet on where those funds will come from or when the tests will happen.
How the Water Flows
The geology of the northwest corner of Arkansas is known as karst and made up of soluble limestone. The area is widely known for springs, sinkholes, underground streams, caverns, and caves. There is a good chance that anything applied to fields in this type of terrain will end up traveling underground where it can mix with other water sources and travel for miles. Dr. Van Brahana is a geology and hydrology professor in the Department of Geosciences and Program of Environmental Dynamics at the University of Arkansas. He volunteers with members of BRWA conducting dye trace testing in water sources around C&H Hog Farm, private land close to the spray fields, Big Creek, and the Buffalo National River.
According to an article in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology, “A number of earlier studies have clearly demonstrated that a variety of tetracycline resistance genes are present in swine fecal material, treatment lagoons, and the environments surrounding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).”
There are an unknown number of caves in Northwest Arkansas, mainly because many are on private land and the owners do not want to make their locations known. There are over 2,000 documented caves in the area. The cave below, on the banks of Big Creek, has flowing water deep inside the cave and shows formations made by dripping water.
Are the Waste Lagoons Leaking?
Results from the recent drilling at C&H Hog Farm are expected in January 2017. The single hole drilled beside the waste lagoons may, or may not be enough to show any movement of waste. However, the farm’s plan is to install new liners in the waste lagoons to help protect from leakages. To carry out the plan those lagoons must be emptied, which means all the swine waste they contain will be spread on land that is also inside the Buffalo River watershed. EC Farms has applied with the ADEQ for permits allowing them to spray additional land with hog waste from C&H Hog Farm. EC Farms neglected to let the ADEQ know that the farm is not operational when asking for the permits.
At a public comment hearing in Jasper, three grandmothers objected to the permit modification that would allow the farm to spray more fields in the delicate watershed. Dr. Nancy Haller, Carol Bitting, and Lin Wellford hired the Richard Mays Law Firm to appeal the ADEQ’s decision. The hearing in which the plaintiffs have asked for a summary judgment against the ADEQ will be on November 16th, in Little Rock.
Many people are questioning whether Arkansas regulatory agencies are being open and transparent about findings of no significant environmental impact caused by C&H Hog Farms. Specifically, allegations that the Government funded Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET) sat on results of electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) done by Dr. Todd Halihan in 2015. As stated in a previous article, Halihan is a geology professor at Oklahoma State University who was brought to C&H Hog Farm by the BCRET to do some testing. The ERI showed an area underneath one of the waste lagoons that Halihan interpreted as, “a large fracture and movement of waste.”
Dr. Andrew Sharpley, a professor in the Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, is the director of BCRET. Questions about Dr. Sharpley’s claim to stay unbiased in his research of the C&H Hog Farm have been raised in part because the results of Dr. Halihan’s tests were not reported right away. In fact, those results did not become known for nearly two years after being discovered by the BCRET.
In response to questions about the subject, Dr. Sharpley said, “It is science, and those results can be interpreted in more than one way.”
Dr. Sharpley is also the co-director of the Arkansas Discovery Farms Program.
In a talk about the program at an Extension Service conference, Dr. Sharpley stated, “We wanted to have some protection for farmers, and we tried to get the ADEQ, and the EPA to give those farmers some protection from being cited if there was a problem. Because we know, we might find problems on these farms. But they wouldn’t write anything on paper, but basically a gentleman’s agreement that if you do find a problem because they’re working in this program, we’ll give them some leniency and you can document that they’re doing their best with the resources they have to address that issue.”
While C&H Hog Farm is not participating in the Discovery Farm Program, the director of the ADEQ, Becky Keogh has made statements to Gordon Watkins, suggesting that they are considering making the farm a part of that program.
Dr. Sharpley helped to create the Arkansas Phosphorus Index on which the farm’s Nutrient Management Plan is based. In the podcast below, he talks about how C&H Hog Farm implements that plan.
There are health concerns for people who live close to the farm, those who rely on the freshwater springs for drinking water, and visitors who use the Buffalo River for recreation.
Gracie Gardner and Jonathan Brandt are teenagers who traveled from Denison, Texas, to Arkansas in July of this year on an adventure trip with a missionary organization called Leader Treks. The teens took part in a five-day canoe trip down the Buffalo River. At one point, a representative from Leader Treks advised them that it was okay to drink water treated with an iodine packet straight from the Buffalo River. The teens became seriously ill after doing so, and soon after both were hospitalized.
According to Jordan Woy, an attorney in Dallas, Texas who is acting as a liaison for Gracie Gardner, Jonathan Brandt, and their families, several doctors who examined the teens have confirmed a water-borne parasite caused their conditions. Gracie and Jonathan remain in the hospital to this day.
“Since they’ve returned from that trip, they’ve pretty much been in the hospital the vast majority of the time. They are still being fed by feeding tubes and PICC lines. Gracie had to have her gallbladder removed because of the illness. Neither one of them is doing very well,” said Woy.
While there is still no definitive proof that swine waste from C&H Hog Farm has reached the Buffalo, the families of Gardner and Brandt want other people to be aware that the possibility exists.
According to the CDC website, “The use of non-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in swine production can select for antibiotic resistance in commensal and pathogenic bacteria in swine. As a result, retail pork products, as well as surface and groundwaters contaminated with swine waste, have been shown to be sources of human exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
According to an article by “Worsham,” “All I Do Iswin; The No-Lose Strategy Of CAFO Regulation Under The Caa.”
“EPA has linked particulate matter to nonfatal heart attacks, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function.”
“The principal water pollutant is livestock waste, which can reach groundwater through soil percolation or surface water through runoff. Water bodies in as many as 35 states, in every region of the United States, have experienced water quality degradation due to such waste.”
In May of 2014, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission placed a temporary moratorium that prohibits the ADEQ from issuing ant new permits for CAFO’s within the Buffalo River Watershed for five years. The end of that period coincides with the end of the BCRET research period. The testing done by BCRET has been ongoing every month for the past three years.
Dr. Sharpley says, “To date, we haven’t seen a problem. As a researcher, I can understand the concerns of people who are concerned because we haven’t seen a problem. They might think that we’re not looking hard enough.”
Many others who are doing testing in the watershed have found high levels of bacteria and nitrates.
“We see the levels the levels go up and come back down again. It’s not consistent, but you need to look at all of the information and there’s a lot,” said Sharpley. “We know that the karst is a leaky system, so leaky geology. In an ideal world, it’s probably not a great place to put something like that (a CAFO.)”
One thing is sure, if the laws continue to allow the CAFO industry to operate in the most sensitive area of Arkansas, then they will have no problem functioning anywhere throughout the rest of the state.
Calming the Waters
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Websites of Interest