Category Archives: Buffalo National River

Troubled Water – The Buffalo National River

Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act requires the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to compile a biennial list of impaired bodies of water in the state. A number of physical, chemical and biological parameters gathered by the ADEQ and other participating agencies are used to determine impairment.

Examples include physical impairment such as sediment, chemical impairment from any number of things but likely nutrient overload, and biological impairment such as fecal coliform bacteria. The standard for any given water body is not uniform but depends on the designated use of said water body.

The highest standard involves extraordinary resource waters, drinking water and water where there is primary (swimming) and/or secondary (wading, fishing) human contact. At the other end of the scale would be cooling water for industry. The objective of the standards is always to protect both human health and the environment in the least restrictive way.

Problems occur when these objectives clash. The ADEQ recently released its 2018 draft 303(d) list and for the first time, a section of the Buffalo National River was listed as impaired. A section of our national treasure and a tributary, Big Creek, are impaired due to elevated E. Coli (bacterial contamination) and low Dissolved Oxygen.

Notably, the area of impairment is adjacent to the controversial C&H hog farm. This farrowing operation raises several thousand hogs a year. Although the farm itself is locally owned the hogs are raised under contract with Brazilian giant JBS S.A, the world’s largest processor of beef and pork. The farm generates about two million gallons of feces and urine annually which is temporarily stored in lagoons before being sprayed on surrounding pasture and hay fields.

The farm was originally permitted by the ADEQ in 2012 and controversy was immediate. Opponents of the farm claimed that there was little to no public notice as required by ADEQ regulations. The farm was shortly thereafter sued for failure to conduct a proper Environmental Assessment (AE) as required by the US EPA.

Upon expiration of their initial permit, a renewal was requested. This was denied and to this date, the farm has been allowed to continue operations during their appeal of the permit denial.

The State has taken several steps to study the issue. First was a scientific group, the Big Creek Research and Extension Team, BCRET funded by the Governor’s office. This study was begun by Governor Beebe and continued by Governor Hutchinson.

More recently created is a type of public interest group, the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, BBRAC. This ad hoc committee created by Governor Hutchinson is comprised of the heads of several state agencies.

In a considerable irony, this committee which was created for the sole purpose of addressing the clamor surrounding the hog farm, decided not to include the farm in its purview. At the last public meeting of BBRAC, a member of the audience commented that every one in the room was there because of the issue surrounding the hog farm yet the action plan did not address the farm.

The declaration of impairment of a 14-mile segment of the river and an adjacent tributary is a black eye for the state of Arkansas for its failure to protect the watershed of the Nation’s first federally protected river.

Permitted Pollution?

The Mt Judea hog factory is going back to court. The factory was first permitted in 2012. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) granted a Regulation 6 permit for the factory. Trouble followed immediately. Opponents of the factory rightly claimed that little to no public notice was given before the factory was permitted and the Reg 6 permit had no site-specific considerations.

The several thousand hogs produce close to two million gallons of waste per year. This stinky brew of urine and feces is spread on hay fields which drain into Big Creek, about six miles from the Buffalo National River. Environmentalists claim that the nutrient pollution washing from the hay fields pollute the Buffalo and threaten hundreds of jobs and a 60 million dollar annual tourism industry.

In 2016 the Reg 6 permit expired. The factory then sought a Reg 5 permit which if granted continued without requiring renewal. The factory continued to operate while ADEQ examined the new permit request. Last month the ADEQ denied the new permit request which the factory is currently appealing. There should be a decision within a couple of months.

Supporters of the factory claim that the factory is operating within the rules of the ADEQ but the environmentalists claim the factory is polluting Big Creek and the Buffalo. They are both right.

The factory has been inspected on numerous occasions and has operated without a violation. At the same time, there is clear evidence of pollution from the factory. Currently, there is a five-year moratorium, begun in 2015, for any new medium to large Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The purpose was to allow time for a study to be done evaluating the impact of the factory on the watershed. Governor Beebe funded the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET) to collect and evaluate the necessary data.

Pollution from the CAFO comes principally from excess nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate. They make their way by washing from the soil into Big Creek and thence the Buffalo. Also, the whole of the Buffalo watershed is underlain by the Boone formation which contains much porous limestone called Karst. This porosity can provide multiple paths for the pollutants to move from the field to underground streams, springs, and wells then into the Buffalo.

Factory proponents want to blame the tourists for nutrient pollution. Granted there will be some, but no way will the million annual visitors leave a couple of gallons each of urine and feces in the watershed.

They also claim that feral hogs in the watershed contribute to the pollution, but the feral hogs are only eating and excreting nutrients already in the watershed – the plants and animals which they eat. On the other hand, the CAFO hogs are eating and excreting nutrients imported into the watershed, an imbalance show by the BCRET data.

Most telling is the data from two gauging stations on Big Creek, one upstream of the spray fields and one downstream. Nitrate measurements downstream average 50 % higher than upstream. The measurements of soluble phosphate show a greater than 100 % increase in concentration downstream compared to upstream. This pollution stimulates algae growth and a subsequent reduction in dissolved Oxygen.

Choking algae blooms and reduced Oxygen negatively affect the numbers and health of fish and other aquatic organisms. Will tourists come to fish for carp in the future? Or will we decide that there are better locales for raising hogs?