You may have heard about the stink in Newton County. It’s just a few hills over from America’s first National River, the Buffalo. Over 6,500 swine are now nestled into a concentrated animal feeding operation – or CAFO – along a tributary to the Buffalo River. Hogs aren’t new to Arkansas, or Newton and Baxter counties, but the scale of this Cargill operation is.
There’s something about storing 280 days worth of hog waste in the same watershed as a national treasure that gets people a little worried. Others get more than a little worried.
The idea of a catastrophic failure to either of C & H Hog Farms’s two sewage lagoons hasn’t set well with the National Park System or a slate of local conservation groups. Seven million gallons of hog waste filtering into what is arguably the state’s most well-known natural feature is plain troubling. But for now, that’s called concern. It doesn’t mean it will happen. It certainly doesn’t mean Arkansan’s should be banned from raising pigs.
But there is something different about making a river like the Buffalo River a little more at risk just to bring in a little more bacon. The Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission – one of a myriad of non-elected government bodies that goes almost wholly-veiled in ambiguity to Arkansans and the media if only for its relative obscurity – has been responsive. Its been aided by two governors who at the least don’t want to expand any potential risks to water quality posed by CAFOs in the Buffalo National River Watershed.
Former Democratic Governor Mike Beebe and the commission backed a 180 day moratorium on any new CAFOs near the Buffalo near the end of his term after outcry from some sections of the public that were not pleased to discover C & H Hogs Farms had been granted a permit in the first place.
Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson has twice backed extending the 180 day moratorium. The idea is that the sensitivity surrounding the Buffalo National River warrants an in-depth environmental study of the watershed. Over time, will millions of gallons of waste in sewage lagoons make it through the operation’s precautions, to the porous Ozark limestone, and then the river?
If it does, it’ll be hard to make the case that adding new CAFOs in the area is a good idea if you care about water pollution. If it doesn’t, there is a potential for even more to set-up shop. Though it’s unclear if there’s really any pent up demand. Of course bellies still growl for pork.
But the results of this study, underway by the University of Arkansas, won’t be complete for another four years or so. A comprehensive assessment in 180 days won’t be coming from that. Though Governor Hutchinson has said he is interested in a four or five year moratorium, or a more-permanent rule change, to let the science come in.
That decision in itself is a little out of step with the administration’s environmental policy. Generally Hutchinson wants the permit process streamlined and challenges pollution allegations. Get the red tape out of the way and let Arkansas reap an economic reward. But here, even though the permit is already approved, the body politic says Arkansas should take another look and listen to environmental scientists. That’s important to keep in mind when you think about the health of other rivers like the Caddo or Ouachita that might not get the reverence of the Buffalo.
Jacob Kauffman has reported on the state legislature since 2013 and primarily covers Arkansas politics for KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock. His work has appeared on NPR, PBS News Hour, as well as a variety of state publications. He is also a regular panelist on AETN’s Arkansas Week and writes an exclusive weekly column for The Nashville News.