Editor's note: This updates with comments from Cargill, clarifies that farm is operating.
An industrial hog farm that could produce more than 2 million gallons of manure and wastewater annually over porous karst geology roughly 5 miles up a tributary from the Buffalo National River was permitted based on erroneous information, according to a coalition opposing the project.
The "confined animal feeding operation," or CAFO, is proposed to handle upwards of 6,500 hogs a year. It is located close to Mount Judea, Arkansas, and near Big Creek, a tributary to the Buffalo National River.
“The ideal thing is to stop it. And the reason being, it’s in absolutely the wrong place, both in terms of being close to the national river, but even worst than that, it’s on karst formations," Jack Stewart, a spokesman for the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said Thursday during a phone call.
Karst geology is composed of easily dissolved rocks, such as limestone and dolomite. Via sinkholes and underground caves in the geology, groundwater can flow miles very quickly. In the National Park System, karst geology is perhaps mostly visibly connected to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, but it can also be found along the Buffalo National River and at Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri.
For many who love the Buffalo National River, the farm run by C&H Hog Farms came as a great surprise earlier this year, according to Mr. Stewart. Though he said there's evidence that the project has been in the works for some time, possibly as long as five years, it only came to light this past January after construction had begun. Under the permit the operation applied for, he explained, there was no requirement that the state publicize the project's permit application in newspapers, and it never was mentioned in the local paper.
On Thursday, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, and the Ozark Society sent notice to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Association that they will be sued unless they ensure that loan guarantee assistance provide to C&H Hog Farms complies with all legal requirements.
The groups assert that the loan guarantee to the hog facility hinges on a flawed environmental review process that violates the law and does not follow USDA’s own regulations.
Earlier this year the superintendent of the Buffalo National River sent a letter of his own, running 11 pages, to the Arkansas executive director of the Farm Service Agency citing nearly four dozen concerns the Park Service had with an environmental assessment conducted in connection with the hog operation's permit application. In opening that letter, Superintendent Kevin Cheri said his staff had reviewed the EA and found it to be "very weak from an environmental point of view."
Additionally, he doubted that the Farm Service Agency had followed its own regulations in compiling the EA, particularly in how it "related to the public communication standard." Somewhat to that point, Superintendent Cheri noted that while the EA identified the National Park Service as a cooperating agency in the matter, "Since we never received word of the document, this is clearly in error."
Among the additional concerns cited by the superintendent were:
* National Environmental Policy Act regulations were not followed in the EA's preparation;
* The EA failed to back up with evidence its contention that no endangered species would be harmed by the hog farm;
* An endangered species, the Gray bat, roosts in caves at Buffalo National River and could be adversely affected if pollution from the hog farm enters Big Creek;
* The EA did not study how the hog farm might lower property values resulting from their proximity to the hog farm or the loss of "income to the people who use the Buffalo River as a source of income for ecotourism";
* While the EA states that the operation would not impact public health, "We feel that FSA utterly failed to consider the impact of the swine waste on the residents of Mount Judea, the people living downstream on Big Creek, or the people recreating within Buffalo National River. We feel that the FSA statement is completely false because 'Public Health' was not adequately analyzed."
On Friday, a spokesman for Cargill, an international food conglomerate that has contracted with C&H Hog Farms for piglets, said the operation was properly permitted and engineered above and beyond state requirements.
"We're as concerned as everybody else is, we don't want to see any adverse impact to the Buffalo River or any other waterways," said Mike Martin. "We believe that with the type of engineering that was done to ensure that there wouldn't be an environmental impact from a release of manure, by preventing a release of manure from this particular farm, that the environmental safeguards that are in place, first of all they're state-of-the-art, and second of all, they go well beyond anything that's required."
In a 25-page response to Superintendent Cheri's letter, Linda Newkirk, the Arkansas executive director of the Farm Service Agency, rebutted each of his comments while also noting that she shared his "concern for protection and preservation of the Buffalo National River and all natural resources in the State of Arkansas."
In a footnote to her response, Ms. Newkirk's staff wrote that "Superintendent Cheri's letter is fraught with conjecture and innuendo and unsubstantiated conclusions which the Farm Service Agency need not respond, but will as best possible based on the Environmental Assessment ("EA") prepared by Agency personnel and a Finding of No Significant Impact ("FONSI"), both of which are supported by extensive information and documentation contained in the EA file prepared by State and Federal Agencies and previously provided to Superintendent Cheri by the Agency."
Furthermore, Ms. Newkirk's response pointed out that the notices of the draft permit application were published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on February 10, 2011, and April 18, 2011, that six public meetings were held, and that no one appealed the decision to issue the permit.
While the Park Service is considered a cooperating agency, her staff noted, there was no obligation to contact the Buffalo National River because the hog farm's location is more than a quarter-mile from the park's boundaries and is not visible from it.
As to Superintendent Cheri's contention that the EA did not adequately consider public health impacts from the hog farm, the FSA staff pointedly replied, "NPS is oblivious to the EA process and its statement in Paragraph 26 is without basis and reckless at best. Based on the ADEQ and NPDES Analysis and Permit as well as the CNMP, there is nothing to indicate that the proposed operation will significantly affect public health and safety, based on NEPA requirements."
In a biting conclusion, the FSA staff wrote that:
The Superintendent of the Buffalo National River, National Park Service, does not understand the Class II Environment Assessment process as used in the case of the C & H Hog Farms project and has failed to take the time to have someone explain it to him, despite the fact that he has had two (2) years to do so. Both the public and applicable cooperating agencies at Federal, State and local levels have received properly published notices, public meetings and the opportunity to contest the permit issued by ADEQ and Class II assessment by the FSA. The project has been properly planned, documented, coordinated, analyzed and permitted in accordance with State and Federal law and complies with NEPA and the EPA, so as to protect the American public, the citizens of Arkansas, and the Buffalo National River.
Back at Cargill, Mr. Martin said hog farming has been done for generations in northwestern Arkansas, seemingly without harming the river.
"There were many more hogs in that immediate area, historically, than there are now. There were just more farms that hundreds of hogs on them rather than having 2,500 sows in one location," he said. "And so, when those farms existed and didn't have the same type of environmental safeguards for the waste lagoons and for dealing with the waste and nutrient management plan, that didn't seem to be a concern.
"There seems to be more of a concern because there's 2,500 sows in one location, as opposed to many more thousands of sows that were spread out over about nine to 11 locations that historically existed in that area. We find that kind of baffling as to why the previous farms that were largely unregulated in terms of being older farms and not having the same requirements that farms do today for environmental compliance, were somehow not as impactful in the view of some people," he said.
Opposition to the hog farm goes beyond the groups that notified the USDA and SBA of their intent to sue if the permitting process was not reviewed and corrected. A. Keen-Zebert, PhD, a geoscientist, Arkansas native, and professor of geosciences at Murray State University maintains a website tracking the hog farm.
A University of Arkansas geosciences professor also has written state officials to point to the unsuitability of karst geology for this sort of operation.
"Although many of the regulations of the NOI (Notice of Intent) appear to have been met ... the heart of the regulations -- the questions of nutrient loading and waste leakage -- are weak and incomplete and do not give confidence that the NOI plans are adequate for preserving environmental quality," wrote John Van Brahana. "My personal perception is that this document does not satisfy the requirements. Coupled with what was perceived as an air of secrecy and a less-than-obvious need for rapid or immediate action, the response of ADEQ in dealing with this project has reinforced the overall feeling that the proposed C&H Hog Farm is a highly risky water-quality endeavor in a fragile, lovely location."
The Buffalo River, designated in 1972 as the very first "national river," flows through the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas. The underlying karst geology has riddled the park's landscape with more than 300 caves. The river and its surrounding forests and campgrounds draw more than 1 million visitors a year, many who come expressly to paddle the river. The tourism results in a $38 million economic boost to the region annually, according to NPCA.
In a press release, Emily Jones, a senior program manager in the NPCA's Southeast Region, said the Buffalo National River must be protected "from the waste and pollutants spewed from an atrociously misplaced industrial facility.”
Among the problems with FSA's environmental assessment, the coalition said, was that notice of the EA was never published in a local newspaper in the vicinity of Mount Judea, and no public comments were received. The Park Service, the groups added, wasn't notified of the EA until two months after roughly $3.5 million in loans were guaranteed by FSA and SBA to the C&H operation.
Robert Cross, president of the Ozark Society, said he too learned of the hog operation only months after its loans were guaranteed.
“I then read the EA in detail. In my many years in industry and academia I have never seen such irresponsibility and negligence in carrying out a task having so much importance to the primary stakeholders—the American public," said Mr. Cross in comments carried in the press release. "Although 600 pages long, it is all virtually meaningless and obviously prepared with the thought that there would be no review. I do have faith in the American justice system in that FSA and SBA will be called to account as a step to stopping the hog farm in the fragile ecosystem of the Buffalo National River.”
Mr. Stewart also said Thursday that another flaw of the plan is the proposal to spray hog waste onto fields near Mount Judea schools. "There are studies that have shown that asthma rates increase dramatically around these CAFOs," he said.
The coalition's release also said the hog waste, rich in phosphorous, could be washed downstream in storm runoff and lead to algae growth and other ecological impacts in the Buffalo River. "With this facility sitting atop extremely porous ground, the risk for contamination of the Buffalo River is exceptionally high, and this risk is at odds with the protections required for a national park," the coalition said.
“We believe that FSA and SBA violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Buffalo National River Enabling Act with their loan guarantees to C&H,” Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the groups, said in the release. “FSA also egregiously violated their own regulations requiring local public notice and proceeded through its entire environmental review and decision-making process with absolutely zero public input.”