MIKE MASTERSON: Arkansas' top attraction

Good and bad

Posted: January 30, 2018 at 2:17 a.m.

First, some good news. A USA Today readers' poll has just named our Buffalo National River, the country's first to be so designated, as the state's best in its list of "Top Ten Arkansas Attractions."

That's not surprising since nearly 1.8 million visitors came to enjoy our national treasure in 2016, sharing some $78 million with related businesses and area communities.

Now, the bad news. The very same 154-mile-long Buffalo was named in a 2017 report by the American National Rivers advocacy group as among the country's "Most Endangered Rivers."

The Buffalo was ranked the nation's ninth most imperiled based on the potential threat of contamination from the controversial C&H Hog Farms operating with 6,500 swine on karst-riddled terrain in the Buffalo watershed six miles upstream from the river.

It's no doubt a dichotomy defying rational comprehension that one national survey ranks our national river as Arkansas' top-rated visitor attraction while in the same year another includes it among America's most endangered rivers.

At this point it's only fair to insert that earlier this month the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) denied the hog factory's request for a revised permit under a different regulation because of a number of deficiencies in the owners' application.

In rejoicing that development, let's stand fellow Arkansans and call those hogs, although the factory continues to operate on a legal stay while preparing its appeal to the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.

Being named Arkansas' top attraction certainly is a terrific honor and a big responsibility for our state government which, along with the National Park Service, bears official stewardship over preserving the Buffalo's purity and beauty for the entire country.

USA Today's other Arkansas finalists were as follows in order from 10th place to second: Blanchard Springs Caverns, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, downtown Eureka Springs, Petit Jean State Park, Little Rock Central High, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Museum of Native American History, Mount Magazine State Park, and Old Mill at T.R. Pugh Memorial Park in North Little Rock.

A panel of experts partnered with the paper's contest editors to come up with each state's initial 20 nominees. Those finishing in the top 10 were determined during four weeks of popular voting.

Now, had they asked me, I'd have created a list that included Crystal Bridges, Eureka Springs and Blanchard Springs Caverns in the top four and thrown in the magnificent White River trout haven below Bull Shoals for good measure and popularity. But the Buffalo would have remained in first place.

Also, hats off to the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in nearby Springfield, Mo., for being named USA Today's Best New Attraction in the U.S. It's a richly deserved recognition, all 350,000 square feet and 1.5 million gallons of that bona fide marvel.

Meanwhile, back at the factory, the Department of Environmental Quality's recent decision to deny the application for a new permit was indeed a welcome breath of fresh air for many Arkansans and those across America who love the river and all it offers.

As I've written previously but can't overstate, I'm certain the owners and operators of the factory are a decent family who know the swine business from squeal to tail. The problem has been solely with the location and the state's terrible decision to ever allow them to begin operating there. In that respect, I believe once this factory is closed, the state should do everything possible to assist these people financially.

Then Arkansas badly needs to place a permanent moratorium on any further such factories in the national river's watershed.

Robert E. Blanz, the Department of Environmental Quality's chief technical officer, sent a letter to the owners the other day that details specific reasons for denying their insufficient permit application.

Amid the technical jargon, I understand those shortcomings include: The application doesn't contain a groundwater flow study around the facility's waste lagoons, which is necessary in such an environmentally sensitive location. It doesn't offer a specific recommended emergency action plan. It fails to present a required geologic investigation of both waste lagoons. The application doesn't comply with required technical geologic investigation of the lagoon berms, and there are significant issues with the lagoon liners.

Finally, the compaction test and permeability analysis fail to comply with accepted agency standards and there is insufficient assessment of high-risk areas of the waste application sites such as soil thickness and water capacity.

One highlighted passage on the agency's website also caught my eye as relevant with its wide authority to issue or deny Individual No Discharge Permits.

It reads: "An individual permit is tailored specifically for each application and allows ADEQ to put specific conditions on each permitted facility or activity depending on its unique conditions."

It sure seems to me the country's first national river and our state's top attraction constitutes a seriously unique condition.

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

Editorial on 01/30/2018