The numbers are familiar to Teague, as there was a similar instance in the watershed some 20 years ago. “You can go back and look at the issue,” Teague says. “Go back and look at the mid-1990s. A new hog farm was proposed for the Buffalo River watershed. I think this one was proposed to be right on the Buffalo River.” The proposed farm would have been closer to the Buffalo than C&H, which is located six miles from the actual river. There was an outcry by the public in the ’90s case as well, and ADEQ initiated a study to monitor the farms and farming techniques that existed there—specifically the regulations regarding manure management. “Yes, at the time, there were some issues with those farms,” Teague says. “Those issues were not related to the location of the farms or leaking manure storage ponds, but rather manure management practices. The study resulted in changes to Arkansas’ nutrient management planning and continuing education requirements for farmers, which are still largely intact today.” Teague continues to argue that with these changes and the far better technology and farming techniques that exist today, C&H is well equipped to operate in a way that does not harm the environment, and they do so. “That’s kind of why we have stood steadfastly behind C&H,” Teague says. Since the farm’s initial permit application, the state has changed the public comment notification requirement for the general CAFO permit. “They did everything they were told they had to do,” Teague says of the farmers. “From a right-to-farm perspective—that’s kind of where we’re coming at this from—they did everything anybody asked them to do. What else can you expect a landowner or a farmer to do?”
The Concerns About Karst
Ask anyone who opposes the farm’s location their reason for doing so, and the area’s karst topography will be one of the first things they mention. Karst refers to the landscape containing limestone that has been partially eroded—it’s been compared to the makeup of Swiss cheese. “There are a lot of assumptions with water quality monitoring that go out the window when you’re in karst environments,” says Jessie Green, executive director and waterkeeper for White River Waterkeeper.
Green formerly worked as a senior ecologist for ADEQ, but she left the state organization to start this nonprofit organization, which is a part of Waterkeeper Alliance. She’s well-versed on water quality, reciting facts and figures as quickly and confidently as most people recite the alphabet. Green and many others argue that if C&H were located on a typical landscape in a watershed near a river, there would be sufficient data to look back on and use for determinations. Protecting the river through these evaluations could be more scientifically accurate. But karst makes this much more of a challenge, they say. “You have to visualize two layers,” says Caven Clark, who works for the National Park Service. “One is the surface watershed, and one is the karst watershed. Both are equally important, and both are equally susceptible to the factors which compromise their quality.”
Carol Bitting, a Newton County resident who has lived on the Little Buffalo River for more than 15 years, is also very familiar with the area’s karst landscape. She knows the river inside and out—she’s floated it, backpacked along it and even swam most of it over and over throughout the years. And she’s also explored the area around it. “Me and my husband met because we’re both cavers,” says Bitting. Bitting’s husband, Chuck, works for the National Park Service, and one of his duties there is acting as a cave specialist. Carol has volunteered to explore many of the caves in the watershed with him. “Traveling through caves and being a caver—you see how that water flows,” Bitting says. “A good example of this is to go to Top of the Rock and sit there and look at what can happen.” Bitting is referring to the sinkhole that collapsed at Top of the Rock in 2015.
In an attempt to figure out how water moves in this karst landscape area, John Van Brahana, who holds a Ph.D. in hydrogeology, formed the Karst Hydrogeology of the Buffalo National River (KHBNR) team, which is now sponsored by the Patagonia Foundation. KHBNR performed a large dye tracing study to learn where the water flows, and Bitting and other volunteers spent hundreds of hours helping out. Teresa Turk, a scientist who brings decades of experience with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the KHBNR team, says the findings were huge. “The dye from the injection site, which was in really close proximity to where manure was being spread—it traveled almost over two miles in less than a week underneath a fairly large ridge—what we would almost call a mountain in the Ozarks,” Turk says. Turk moved back to northwest Arkansas five years ago to be near the Buffalo River, but her earliest memory there is exploring fish through child-sized goggles at age 10. Today, she fears for the safety of those fish and the Buffalo National River as a whole. “The overall implication of this study is that the hydrology out there is really complex,” Turk says. “The dispersal of nutrients is wide, broad and has far-reaching implications to the whole area. Manure is not being constrained to just that area. It’s going wide and far. When you spread almost 3 million gallons of hog manure every year, it’s gotta go somewhere.”
Others, including the team at Arkansas Farm Bureau, note that they are also aware of the concerns that come with karst topography. “The opposition has alleged that Farm Bureau and the others have failed to acknowledge the presence of karst, which is not true,” Teague says. “We realize there’s karst in that part of the state. There always has been. And guess what? There has also always been animal agriculture in that part of the state, whether it’s poultry, whether it’s hogs, whether it’s cattle—and you don’t see a variation. We’re not aware of any major impacts of subsurface groundwater as a result of animal agriculture in that part of the state.”
Part of the reason karst doesn’t affect the watershed, Teague argues, is because of the depth of the soil. “What they also fail to tell you is that there’s three to four feet of topsoil, particularly in the areas around Big Creek,” Teague says. He goes on to speak about the dye-tracing studies, but states that an old 40-foot hand-dug well was used as an injection point. This is not representative of how the farm operates, Teague argues, as the manure is applied to pastures in small, regulated amounts.
Andrew Sharpley, who holds a Ph.D. in soil science and works for the Division of Agriculture in the Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Arkansas, was selected to lead the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET) that was put in place by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe. The study started in fall 2013 in an effort to provide scientifically rigorous information on any potential impacts of the farm on Big Creek, including levels of bacteria and nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and it has published quarterly reports since that time. When Sharpley speaks about the karst, he understands the concern and says it is something they’re cautious of. “We know there’s karst, and we know there are sinkholes,” Sharpley says. “There’s a buffer around those [where] they can’t apply manure. There’s geology mapping that gives a pretty good idea where sinkholes—especially those that come to the surface—are, and those are obvious and mapped on a farm plan. There’s a 100-foot buffer around them, and they’re required not to apply there.”
A Closer Look at the Farm
C&H Hog Farms is a privately owned farm that originally contracted with Cargill, a large, privately held corporation involved in trading, purchasing and distributing grain and other agricultural commodities. In July 2015, JBS USA Pork entered an agreement with Cargill to acquire the company’s U.S.-based pork business, and this included C&H Hog Farms. C&H’s current contract is with JBS, and JBS supplies the hogs. Cheri Schneider, who works in communications for JBS USA, sent the following statement: “C&H Farm is an independent, locally-owned and operated family farm that raises hogs under contract for JBS USA,” it said. “We do not control or own the farm; however, it is our understanding that C&H is fully compliant with all applicable regulations and standards and continues to make significant investments to ensure environmental compliance.”
C&H is a farrow-to-wean operation. It is home to 2,500 sows, and those sows give birth to piglets. The piglets are raised to a size of about 12 to 15 pounds, and then they are shipped to other states. They are finished and slaughtered in surrounding states including Texas, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, and the meat is sold across the U.S. and possibly overseas. But it’s not the farming process that BRWA board members and others are concerned about; it’s what happens to the waste from these sows and piglets.
“There’s a line that goes around that says hogs produce as much waste as six or eight people do,” Watkins says, speaking on behalf of the BRWA. “And that’s a fact. They produce copious amounts of feces and urine. So this operation with 2,500 sows produces more waste than the city of Harrison—a city of 12,000 people.” Watkins goes on to explain that 12,000 is a conservative number, and some people quote the waste from C&H to be equivalent to something closer to 20,000 to 30,000 humans. “Well, the city of Harrison has a waste-water treatment plant,” Watkins says. “You know, it goes through this elaborate system to purify it before it’s disposed of, ultimately. This CAFO does not do anything like that. They store it in a pond, then they spray the raw waste on the fields. Can you imagine the city of Harrison doing that?”
John Bailey, director of environmental and regulatory affairs with Arkansas Farm Bureau, explains the other side of this argument. “Essentially, what you have is oversized lagoons with 18-inch compacted clay liners, sitting on top of a clay outcropping, much of what can be used as a clay liner itself,” says Bailey, who is from Springdale, Arkansas, and floats the Buffalo National River annually. These ponds being oversized, as well as the lining that has formed, are considered measurements of safety against seepage and leakage. The liquid waste from the farm is stored in these holding ponds until it is spread on some 35 fields permitted to be used by the farm. “But the real science behind this application are the soils,” says Bailey, who is also a professional engineer. “Soils do all the work to purify the water. Sure, if you just want to talk about karst and take the soils away, yes, that’s a problem. But the soils are there, and they do their job.” Sharpley from BCRET agrees. “That soil acts as a natural buffer for cleansing the water that moves through it,” he says. “The soil varies in thickness. Any rainfall, sludge, slurry, manure—it has got to go through several feet of soil before it gets to what we might think of as karst rock layers.”
Many of these spraying fields are owned by other area farmers, and many are planted with Bermuda grass and fescue, which Teague says were approved in the farm’s nutrient management plan due to their absorption rates of the nutrients that can become oversaturated—particularly the phosphorus and nitrates that could threaten water quality. Teague also argues that C&H’s application rates are more than conservative. “If you take that two and a half million gallons [of waste] and just assume that you would apply all 2.5 million gallons over their available land application acreage, it would be less than one-eighth of an inch,” Teague says. “And they don’t apply it all at one time, or all at the same time.” Also due to the nutrient management plan and with their permit, C&H can apply at either low or medium rates (risk categories include low, medium,high and very high). “ADEQ set the limit to say you cannot apply at high or very high rates,” Bailey says. “Every application is at low. [Henson’s] phosphorus index has to spit out a low risk in order for him to apply. It’s not medium—it’s low. And that’s his choice.”
Bailey goes on to state C&H might even be a benefit to the watershed. “Everyone perceives that there will be an increase in the amount of nutrients to the Buffalo River,” Bailey says. What people don’t realize, Bailey says, is that C&H Hog Farms is permitted to apply waste on fields and pastures, and these fields and pastures were long in existence prior to C&H ever being in operation. Since these fields already existed and were being farmed, they were receiving fertilizer application, whether through chicken litter or commercial fertilizer products. “I’d like to point out that they don’t need a permit to do that,” Bailey says. “So, if they could get a truckload of chicken litter, they’d put it out. With C&H, they have only a permitted amount they can put out, so it’s 100 percent managed. In reality, nutrients could actually be reduced in the watershed as a result of C&H being in operation.” A decrease in nutrients would be considered good.