MIKE MASTERSON: Months of delay

Hog factory permit

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1:50 a.m.

Call me cynical, skeptical, realistic or an unapologetic voice for the welfare and preservation of the only Buffalo National River we have.

Whatever else I might be, I'm not the least surprised our state's bungling Department of Environmental Quality (wheeze) has delayed for over six months (and counting) its decision on whether to permanently re-permit C&H Hog Farms, originally allowed into the river's karst-laden watershed in 2012.

This factory with some 6,500 swine has operated for more than a year on an expired permit that was effective for five years until the agency began considering its application for the new one under a different regulation. The re-permitting process included 50 prescribed days of public input that drew 20,000 comments (each requiring an agency response).

The agency's long delay makes no sense to me when the reason it gives is needing more time to thoroughly analyze and acknowledge those public responses and discover answers to basic questions it should have demanded before wrongheadedly permitting this factory into our state's most environmentally sensitive region.

So what's the real reason behind the agency dragging its feet? Is it delaying in hopes of quelling the widespread and sincere public opinion against their actions? Perhaps to buy more time to legally bolster its actions?

After all, valued readers, every adult in Arkansas can see what a serious mistake this approval was in the first place. Even former Democrat Gov. Mike Beebe publicly called it his biggest regret in office. I wouldn't want such a doleful legacy forever draped around my neck either if (and I believe when) the country's first national river needlessly becomes contaminated. That also goes for current Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who knows all too well of his predecessor's lament.

Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, prefers to believe the agency is moving slowly in consideration of the legal implications raised by many of those public comments over issuing this factory that generates and spreads millions of gallons of raw waste annually a fresh permanent permit.

Yet Watkins says C&H has been operating as usual with an expired permit and the Department of Environmental Quality's blessings since May 2016. He said he's written the agency to learn when it will make its decision. "The fact that the office of general counsel responded to my request suggests the legal ramifications of their decision are under consideration," said Watkins.

"Nonetheless, they did give the public a strict deadline for submitting comments (4:30 p.m. on April 6), and we find it unreasonable that, after six months, they cannot provide at least an estimated completion date for a decision. It's a serious loophole in the regulations when a facility with an expired permit, especially one as controversial as C&H, is allowed to continue to operate and spread waste indefinitely."

Meanwhile, the agency on Sept. 19 sent a certified letter containing a list of six requests to C&H owner Jason Henson. The agency finally was requesting pertinent information that obviously should have been provided when it reviewed the factory's initial permit more than five years ago.

Talk about clumsily fumbling the ball before this hog game even began! Common sense and due diligence tell me these questions should have been fully answered before a permit was even considered, much less awarded.

One might rightly say after five years and counting that thousands of hogs were long ago out of the barn (OK, I'm done).

The letter gives Henson 90 days to respond by providing all geologic investigations performed for the facility, the construction plans for the factory's waste management system as well as its waste management system as built.

It also requested "the following documentation to supplement the Nutrient Management Plan (NMP): a. A list of the nearest waterbodies, including all nearby streams, for all land application sites listed in the NMP. The list shall include the name of the waterbody and the distance to all relevant land application sites. b. Maps for all land application sites with updated buffers ... in accordance with [relevant regulations], which includes a 100-foot buffer (in all directions) for streams including intermittent streams, ponds, lakes, springs, sinkholes, rock outcrops, wells and water supplies. In addition, the buffer from Mount Judea sport complex shall be updated to reflect a 500-foot buffer from that complex. ..."

In closing, the Department of Environmental Quality said it wanted a comprehensive maintenance plan for the pond levee, including an inspection schedule.

Who knows how long it will be for all that back and forth between the agency and Henson to play out as the factory continues spreading its endless supply of untreated waste in fields along Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo flowing just six miles downstream?

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 10/29/2017