Tag Archives: nutrient pollution

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?

Toxic Beaches

algal bloom

algal bloom

Beaches in several counties on Florida’s Atlantic Coast are currently closed due to the presence of slimy, malodorous and most importantly toxic algae. The algae growth comes from nutrient laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. For the back story read on.

Thomas Malthus was a English cleric who in 1798 published an essay which suggested that human disaster loomed due to over population. He postulated that population grew logarithmically [1,2,4,8,16…] whereas food production only grows arithmetically [1,2,3,4,5…] Malthus predicted famine and starvation were the only possible outcomes without controlling population growth.

The Malthusian Catastrophe of course didn’t come about. Although population is growing logarithmically agricultural practices have been able to sustain burgeoning human populations. Improved tools, irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides,plant breeding and ever larger farms averted the catastrophe.

An important agricultural innovation was called the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Food production was increased by careful selection of plant cultivars which responded favorably to large increases of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizers. Application at rates far above what a crop could actually absorb did result in increased production, but resulted in fertilizer run-off. Increased profits from the crops offset the wasted fertilizer.

But everything goes somewhere. The excess fertilizer washes off the farmland and into adjacent low areas to rivers and lakes, and ultimately into the oceans. Just as the fertilizer increases crop production in farm fields, it increases algal growth in the rivers and lakes.

The Atlantic beaches in South Florida are being fouled with algal blooms from water draining from Lake Okeechobee. The fertilizer laden water is the result of run-off from sugar cane fields which have replaced much of the Everglades.

Besides the inconvenience and costs associated with lost tourism dollars, there is significant secondary environmental damage. After an algae bloom comes an algae crash. As the algae dies off it decomposes aerobically. That means it consumes the Oxygen in the water. The same Oxygen that all the animals require, from the simplest aquatic insects up to and including all the fish.

In certain locales there are “dead zones” with little if any animal life. All the coastal areas of the US, including the Great Lakes, are plagued by dead zones at the mouths of major rivers. They are know scientifically as hypoxic (low-Oxygen) zones and range in size from less than a square mile to over 25,000 square miles. The largest is essentially all of the Baltic Sea. The hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is about 7,000 square miles

Around the world there a several hundred of these sterile areas. We have averted the Malthusian Catastrophe for us, but created a catastrophe for the native flora and fauna of the planet.

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.

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.

Nutrient Pollution is Number One

One generally needn’t go to a dictionary to understand the meaning of the word pollutant, it’s something that doesn’t belong in the air or the water or wherever and may have harmful effects.

A first thought of a water pollutant is usually an industrial chemical spill. A good example of this was the leak from Freedom Industries chemical storage facility in West Virginia. The spill polluted the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. Ironically the chemical, methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), was used to “clean” coal.

Fossil fuels or there byproducts are also a major water pollutant. Duke Energy in North Carolina burns a lot of coal. The waste coal ash is stored in ponds. A breach of two ponds allowed a toxic brew of heavy metals to coat over 70 miles of the Dan River.

Right here in Arkansas an ExxonMobil oil pipeline flooded a quarter of a million gallons of a substance called diluted bitumen (dilbit.) This is a particularly toxic mixture of a solvent and tar.

The granddaddy of all spills, at least is recent history, was the blowout of a British Petroleum well in the Gulf. There, close to a quarter of a billion gallons of crude oil was released and fouled wetlands and beaches for hundreds of miles from Louisiana to Florida.

Another type of water pollutant is a set of chemical compounds which are referred to as Endocrine Disruptors. The substances can cause bizarre effects in fish and have the possibility to affect humans. Many male black bass in the Potomac River were found to actually be feminized males which were developing immature eggs. The source of the pollutant in this case was the metabolites of human pharmaceutical drugs coming from sewage treatment plants.

algae

algae

The total amount of these pollutants – fossil fuels, industrial chemicals, and wastes of all kinds – pale in comparison to the most common pollutant, nutrients. Nitrogen and Phosphorous, in the forms of their salts Nitrate and Phosphate are polluting fresh water around the globe. Even ocean estuaries are negatively impacted.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are referred to as limiting nutrients, plants don’t grow without them. Excessive amounts in both fresh and salt water cause excessive growth called algal blooms. After time the algae die off. As they decompose they consume oxygen in the water which can smother fish and other aquatic species.

A region near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico is hypoxic, meaning extremely low in dissolved Oxygen. The size of this dead zone varies from year to year but has been as large as 10,000 square miles.

Gulf dead zone

Gulf dead zone

The Buffalo National River is now threatened with its own dead zone. Cargill, America’s largest privately held corporation supplies swine to an industrial hog farm in the watershed of the Buffalo. Up to 6,300 hogs are confined in two buildings just a stone’s throw from Big Creek which flows a scant 6 miles to the Buffalo.

Over 2 million gallons a year of hog feces, laden with Nitrogen and Phosphorous, are spread over a few hundred acres of hay fields. It is not a matter of if but when these nutrients begin to pollute America’s first national river.