BRENDA BLAGG: A tempered victory

Road for opponents to hog farm remains long

Posted: January 24, 2018 at 1 a.m.

That highly controversial hog farm in the Buffalo National River's watershed has been denied a state permit for its continued operation.

It might seem time for jubilation, but the fight for the integrity of the free-flowing national river is hardly over.

C&H Hog Farms, which supplies swine to pork producers, initially received a state permit in 2012 through a process that famously happened without public input.

Soon after, residents of the Mount Judea (Newton County) area, where the farm is located, and Buffalo River enthusiasts from all over the state and nation realized what had happened. They organized and fought back, often futilely.

They're still fighting and won't stop until the concentrated hog-feeding operation, located near a tributary of the Buffalo, is a distant memory -- and no more are allowed to threaten the treasured river that attracted nearly 1.8 million visitors in 2016.

Time on C&H Hog Farms' initial permit, granted in 2014, expired a while back; but the business is still operating while it appeals the state's denial of an extension.

Obviously, the farmers who own C&H have invested heavily in the hog operation. They don't want to lose their investment and are doing what they can to win a permit extension for what is now a 6,500-pig feeding operation.

The pigs aren't the problem. It is the waste they generate, estimated to amount to more than 2.3 million gallons of hog manure that is supposedly contained in two waste-holding ponds. And then there is the additional waste and wastewater that gets applied to the farmland that overlays the region's porous karst topography.

Does that waste make its way to the adjacent Big Creek? Or into the Buffalo?

There has been a lot of monitoring and scientific studies and steps to hold C&H to a high operating standard in the intervening years. But the fear that the watershed could be polluted remains as strong as ever.

There are strong objections not just to the way the original permit got approved for the large hog far but also to the lengthy delay in getting a decision on C&H's application for a new permit.

They applied for a new permit in April 2016 and didn't get a decision from the state until a couple of weeks ago.

The denial finally came from the state Department of Environmental Quality earlier this month.

Importantly, the farmers were protected in that long interim (463 days) as state regulators allowed C&H to operate on their expired permit.

So, when the agency declined to issue a new permit, was that a death knell for the hog farm?

No. C&H has appealed that decision to the state board that oversees the agency, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.

Last week, the commission stayed the agency's decision, allowing C&H to continue operations until the appeal process is over.

If the farmers had not gotten the stay, they would presumably have had to submit plans for shutting down the operation and cleaning up the site.

They got the stay, so there will be no shutdown or cleanup for a while longer. The hog farm can keep operating on that expired permit throughout this appeal process.

You can get way deep in the regulatory weeds to try to understand why the permit application stalled for so long. Remember, the decision to allow the first permit was unduly rushed and shrouded with too much secrecy.

So, chalk part of the delay on the new permit up to a more transparent process and closer scrutiny by the regulators amid unrelenting objections from opponents to this or any other large animal-feeding operation in the Buffalo's watershed.

Denial of the permit could eventually mean those foes will prevail. Just don't get too excited.

Even with the recent denial, delay continues to work for the hog farmers. They'll keep feeding those thousands of pigs as the appeal continues.

They've had to pay a huge price, including the cost of lawyers and others to keep up their side of the fight. But they're still in it, just as are the many thousands who are determined to protect the Buffalo River.

Commentary on 01/24/2018