In 1962, Dr. Neil Compton, along with other interested citizens and conservationists, founded the Ozark Society in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plans to dam the Buffalo River. A 10-year battle ensued, ending in 1972 when President Richard Nixon designated the pristine, 132-mile Ozark Mountain stream as America's first national river.
Now, 40 years later, a new alliance has formed in response to a confined animal feeding operation under construction in the river's watershed, only six miles from the river itself. The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
has begun what it calls "the first fight for the Battle of the Buffalo II" with a call to action that includes defeating "this [confined animal feeding operation]" and seeking "policies that will build a wall around the Buffalo River Watershed."
C & H Hog Farms in Mount Judea, Newton County, Arkansas was issued a confined animal feeding operation general permit by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in August 2012. Plans included construction of two barns that will ultimately house more than 6,500 animals — one swine farrowing barn and one swine gestation barn — and applying waste to farm fields located between the farm and Big Creek (see photo above), a large tributary of the Buffalo National River. Funds for the construction came from Farm Credit Services of Harrison, Ark., and were guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. The farm will operate under a contract with Cargill.
While there are eight other commercial animal farms in the Buffalo National River watershed, none of them are this large. Six of the other farms raise swine, each with 500 or less sows. The new C & H Hog Farms operation will house 2,500 sows and three boars. When piglets are present, the total number of animals could reach more than 6,500.
How could such a large confined animal feeding operation, which will produce an estimated 2,090,181 gallons of liquid waste a year, be under construction in the Buffalo National River watershed without anyone knowing? Inadequate public notice during the permitting process has been one of the main items of contention from concerned citizens and organizations thus far. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's director, Teresa Marks, stated that even if everyone had known about it the permit would still have been issued because C & H Hog Farms followed the law.
An environmental assessment
was conducted by Farm Service Agency personnel as part of the loan process. No such study is required by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality as part of the confined animal feeding operation general permitting process. The Farm Service Agency's final assessment found there would be no negative effects to "the quality of the human environment," and therefore an environmental impact statement was not prepared. Since the environmental assessment was part of the Farm Service Agency's process, the document was never sent to or reviewed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
Despite the fact that the assessment reported no potentially negative effects on the environment, conservationists, scientists, and citizens alike are concerned for a number of reasons. The Ozark Mountains are full of karst features — caves, sinkholes, and underground streams — because the geology of the region consists mainly of water-soluble rock such as limestone. This means waste could leak into groundwater from holding ponds despite proper construction. And because some of the waste application sites are only 100 feet from Big Creek, a high-water event could wash waste downstream and into the Buffalo National River. Not only does the river attract more than one million visitors a year, it serves as critical habitat for a number of sensitive bird species, as well as the Rabbitsfoot mussel, a candidate for the Threatened and Endangered Species List. There are also two endangered bats known from caves in the area.
The National Park Service's Kevin Cheri, superintendent of the Buffalo National River Park, also states he did not receive a copy of the environmental assessment until February 5, 2013 and was not notified of the project while it was in the works. In a letter to Linda Newkirk
, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Arkansas, Superintendent Cheri highlighted 45 issues with the environmental assessment and the notification process, and requested a halt to the C & H Hog Farms project until "[the National Park Service] and the public and other stakeholders are afforded an opportunity to comment."
The first round of public comments were heard at a meeting of the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, the environmental policy-making body for the state of Arkansas, on March 22, 2013. Concerned citizens and representatives of several conservation organizations spoke against the project, stating a weak environmental assessment and inadequate opportunity for public input as reasons for revoking the permit and halting the project immediately. One of the farm owners, along with farming and industry representatives, made comments in favor of the project, reiterating that C & H Hog Farms had followed the law and pointing out the importance of farming to the livelihood of the area. To date, construction at the farm is still underway, and their permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has not been revoked.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is now petitioning President Barack Obama to "Keep America's First National River, the Buffalo River, Clean and Pristine!" The petition can be found here
on Change.org and has nearly 7,000 signatures thus far.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has scheduled a public meeting to further discuss the C & H Hog Farms' confined animal feeding operation. It will be held at 6:00 p.m. on May 8, 2013 at the Carroll Electric Building located on Highway 7 in Jasper, Arkansas.