MASTERSON ONLINE: Science on the Buffalo

Posted: February 24, 2018 at 2:03 a.m.

Those intent on leaving C&H Hog Farms in its precarious location along the Buffalo National River watershed are advocating science, rather than emotion, to make their case.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) denied the factory owners’ application for a revised operating permit last month, allowing it to continue functioning on its original general permit pending appeal to the state’s Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.

Science, what a dilly-dilly of an idea! I submit a letter written by Gerald Delavan, a former 30-year-veteran professional geologist with the department. His former agency in 2012 issued a permit to establish this swine factory along Big Creek, just 6 miles upstream from our state’s most popular attraction.

Delavan retired in 2014. He understands the science of karst subsurfaces in sensitive regions such as the Buffalo watershed. Below is part of an extensively detailed letter Delavan sent in 2017, edited for space, to Jamal Solaimanian, engineering supervisor for the agency’s Water Quality permitting branch, copied to the governor.

“The review and approval of the initial C&H Hog Farms permit application … to allow the land application and disposal of a large volume of untreated hog waste in the Big Creek watershed under a general permit … was at best poorly conceived and poorly executed by Water Division staff.

“The initial C&H permit application … to land apply hog waste at this location was never reviewed by any of the professional geologists working in the Water Division … prior to the permit being issued. To my knowledge, none of the ADEQ staff geologists were ever offered the opportunity to participate.

“The C&H permit application was reviewed and approved exclusively by the ADEQ Engineers working in the Water Division. Consequently, any potential problems concerning the release of liquid waste into the local groundwater from the manure holding ponds at C&H were never discussed or evaluated by ADEQ geology staff.

“In addition, the potential for waste-contaminated surface water runoff to be discharged into Big Creek and for the infiltration of waste contaminates into groundwater from the land application sites through the underlying karst limestone geology was never discussed or reviewed by any ADEQ geology staff prior to issuance of the … initial permit.

“ADEQ staff engineers never requested any geologic borings be installed, or performed additional geologic evaluation of the proposed holding pond locations prior to issuing the … permit. The known presence of karst geology beneath the proposed locations for the manure holding ponds and the proposed land application sites should have raised a major “red flag” for any ADEQ engineer reviewing this permit application.

“The limestone geology beneath the hog farm site and beneath the land application sites and the region is known to be highly fractured, with numerous voids and conduits which move surface water and groundwater rapidly through a vast system of inter-connected fractures, solution channels and springs just inches below the soil profile.

“Given the sensitive geologic nature of this proposed hog farm location, the appropriate thing to do would have been for ADEQ Water Division to expand the permit application review process to include the ADEQ professional geologist staff … . There was little or no geologic information about the hog farm or the land application sites provided in the C&H permit application.

“[T]o evaluate the geology of a site you need site-specific information. Therefore, the reviewing geologist would have most likely requested an additional geologic evaluation be performed in and around the proposed holding pond locations prior to approving construction.

“Additional borings placed in and around the proposed holding pond locations would have provided the additional data needed to determine if there are any karst features present beneath the holding ponds such as solution channels, caves, or void spaces which could impact the integrity of the constructed pond liners and/or provide an avenue for rapid transport if and when any liquid wastes are released from these liquid waste holding ponds.

“If this data had been requested and provided by the applicant, the reviewing geologist could have in turn had input in the permit review process and assisted the reviewing engineers in making informed decisions regarding the site itself and the larger issue of whether it was appropriate to approve a permit [for] a hog farm at this location at all.

“If ADEQ had given its geologists an opportunity to review and comment on C&H’s permit application, it is highly unlikely any of the professional geologists performing the review would have signed off on or approved the proposed permit for the C&H holding pond locations without requesting additional geologic data be gathered about the proposed holding pond locations and proposed land application sites.

“I believe the permit application review process conducted by the Water Division engineers … was severely flawed, as it failed to adequately consider several issues, the first being the potential impact of locating this hog farm and its associated land application sites on the shallow karstic limestone geology found beneath the site.

“In addition, Water Division engineers were clearly malfeasant in their review of the C&H permit application, as they failed to consider missing key data needed to properly and adequately evaluate the potential impact of this hog farming operation on the local environment.

“The [required Environment Assessment] prepared for and submitted by C&H in its permit application barely mentions and/or discusses the subsurface geology found beneath the sites and failed to even mention the shallow karst limestone found beneath the site and/or discuss any possible impacts hog farm operations may or may not have on shallow local groundwater supplies present beneath the farm and land application sites. The EA also failed to discuss any potential impacts to surface water quality or groundwater quality from waste infiltration or wastewater runoff at the land application sites.

“It is clear Water Division engineers and ADEQ senior staff, by overlooking these omissions in the C&H permit application and by not requesting additional information be provided in regards to these omissions, ADEQ failed to adequately review the C&H permit application as submitted, and therefore should not have issued the final permit to C&H until such time as these deficiencies in the permit application were addressed.

“It is also my opinion, ADEQ was also malfeasant by not having an ADEQ registered professional geologist or any other geologist from any agency, independent or otherwise, review and comment on this proposed hog farm permit prior to its approval and issuance.”

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at