Monthly Archives: May 2016

Karst Topography and the Buffalo National River

In August 2012 a hog factory with as many as 6500 hogs was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The permitting process employed what is called a Regulation 6 General Permit. In itself this is somewhat unusual as Reg 6 is usually applied to things like wastewater treatment facilities, or construction sites with concerns for managing storm water run-off. There are two types of Reg 6, individual and general. The permit used in this case was the general permit – it has no location or site specific considerations. Along with the general permit is a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) that allows for the dispersal of agricultural wastes,in this case liquid pig manure, in a fashion which shouldn’t burden the soils with nutrients in excess of what can be absorbed on designated fields.

The problem is that this particular factory is sited on a Mount Judea, AR location on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. If hog manure is spread on the land in excess of the amount that the grasses can absorb, there may be nutrient pollution of Big Creek and and the Buffalo.

In August of 2013 Governor Beebe allocated several hundred thousand dollars to fund a research effort to examine the risk of pollution to the Buffalo. Professor Andrew Sharpley University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is leading what is called the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET)

In April 2014 the Pollution Control and Ecology (PC&E) Commission began a moratorium on any new medium to large hog operations (Confined Animal feeding Operations – CAFO.) The data is mixed as to whether pollutants are running off the hay fields where the manure is spread and into Big Creek, then down to the Buffalo.

An important and confounding feature of this hog factory is that the local topography appears to be underlain by karst, a particularly porous limestone that is prone to sink holes, caves and springs. Water and anything in it will move rather rapidly through the subsurface terrain and contaminate locales distant from the site.

Two types of studies have been conducted that confirm the karst. Dr Van Brahana, emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology University of Arkansas, has done dye tracing in the area. He and his coworkers bore a hole in the ground, add a specific dye solution and then monitor the surrounding aquifers for presence of the dye. Dye added in close proximity to the farm spray fields resulted in detection of the dye in 44 remote sites, 14 of which were in caves and springs near the river and 3 in the Buffalo itself.

Professor Todd Halihan, Professor of Hydrogeology Oklahoma State University, utilized another technique to test for the presence of karst. He employed Electrical Resistivity Imaging (ERI) across several transects very close to the ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid hog wastes. He found not just porosity but what he believes to be a major fault which is allowing movement of wastes into the subterranian aquifers, confirming Brhana’s dye studies.

Sadly neither of these studies were conducted by the BCRET, and hence have been ignored by the ADEQ and the PC&E commission which oversees the ADEQ.


As if we didn’t have enough insect and tick born diseases to worry about, an emerging risk is the relatively new (to the western hemisphere) Mosquito born Zika virus. Add it to other scourges around Arkansas such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Erhlichiosis, and Tularemia from ticks (also deer flies for Tularemia), and mosquito born West Nile Virus and St. Louis encephalitis (SLE). Any and all of these diseases can have serious consequences especially if left untreated.

Zika is a new viral disease which is projected to be an issue in the future in much of the United States including Arkansas because of the ability of the host to breed and spread in a number of climatic niches. The mosquito vector, genus Aedes, is a day-time feeder and is said to be able to reproduce is a bottle cap’s worth of water. So far no known disease transmission from mosquito bites has occurred in the United States, but transmission from bites has occurred in two territories in western hemisphere, Puerto Rico and and the US Virgin Islands. There are reported cases in most states from travelers who were exposed overseas.

Zika was discovered in 1947 in Uganda. From the 1960s to 1980s, human infections were found across Africa and Asia, typically accompanied by mild illness. The symptoms are common to a number of other mosquito born viral infections. From there the virus moved to south-east Asia and across the Pacific. During a 2013-14 outbreak in French Polynesia, the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome was linked to Zika infection. In South America, the first reports of locally transmitted infection came from Brazil in May 2015. In July 2015 Brazil reported an association between Zika virus infection and GBS.

It is only a matter of time until the local mosquito population becomes infected with the Zika virus, and begins to spread the disease among humans. The most frightening aspect of the disease which has recently been confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is a unique birth defect that occurs in the offspring of infected women. Microcephaly is a condition where the infant is born with an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain. Brazil has reported a rate of about 2,500 cases of microcephaly.

The disease has also been shown to be transmitted by blood and semen. Men with the virus have been know to transmit the disease to sex partners. It is currently not know if women can infect partners.

The condition results in a poor prognosis for normal brain function and individuals have a greatly reduced life expectancy. Although there can be other causes of microcephaly, the CDC has affirmed the connection between the Zika virus and the Brazilian outbreak.

Two months ago President Obama asked congress to appropriate 1.8 billion dollars to fight the spread of the disease. The republican controlled Congress has so far refused to act on the request. Without congressional support to fight the disease the president has no choice but to switch funding within the CDC, taking it away from monies committed to surveillance and treatment of Ebola.

Congress, name your poison.

Pollution Trading

Pollution caused by a process or industry is a prime example of a negative externality. The pollution producer makes decisions on the cost of and profit from an activity. The cost of pollution is not born by the producer or even the consumer, but rather by impacted individuals or society as a whole.

Society can ban activities which pollute, but this will reduce economic activity which is also detrimental to society. One method to try to meld these opposing ideas is a system of pollution trading. This generally involves governmental establishment of a “tolerable” level of pollution as a cap, then a right to a portion of the allowed pollution can be bought and sold just like a commodity. With a cap in place, pollution can’t get worse, and the cap can be gradually lower to reduce total pollution.

Pollution trading in the United States began with Sulfur Dioxide (SO2,) the principle source of acid rain. The major source of the pollutant is produced by burning coal. In 1990, a cap of 10 million tons per annum was established. Utilities had to buy a “right to” pollute. The cap was then lowered in future years. Companies that could eliminate part or all of their share could sell the pollution rights to other utilities who were unwilling or unable to reduce their emissions.

The assumption is that the environment can deal with a small amount of pollution, as long as it is sufficiently dispersed. For the case of acid rain, alkaline soils or areas with a limestone formations can absorb some acidity. Another type of pollution is nutrient overload. Certain compounds of Nitrogen and Phosphorous are used as fertilizer. If the the fertilizer spread on a crop isn’t absorbed, it runs off and can damage the environment.

Agricultural activities and waste treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay were seriously damaging water quality. Four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia joined together to create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nutrients across the watershed. The ongoing program through nutrient trading and a gradual reduction of the TMLD, is resulting in improved water quality. There are costs associated with operating a trading program, but it produces positive externalities such as improved fisheries, and increased tourism due to improved water quality.

In 2015 the Arkansas legislature approved ACT 335, to “Authorize the implementation of nutrient water quality trading, credits, offsets, and compliance associations and for other purposes…” The plan is to employ nutrient pollution trading to ultimately improve the water quality in several impaired watersheds across the state. Biannually, the state of Arkansas must submit a list of impaired water bodies known as the 303(d) list. By capping total nutrients leaving the watershed and then slowly lowering the cap, water quality should improve. Market forces will determine how to best reduce nutrient pollution, not stringent regulations. Waste treatment facilities and farms which are successful at limiting nutrients we be able to “sell” their improvements to others not so successful.