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Widely respected hydrogeologist Thomas Aley, president of the Ozark Underground Laboratory in Protem, Mo., completed in May his investigation into the suitability of issuing a new Regulation 5 animal liquid waste permit to C&H Hog Farms.

Aley's extremely detailed study concluded absolutely not, while emphasizing the original permit for this 6,500-swine factory in 2012 shouldn't have been issued without extensive testing.

This constituted a critical mistake without extensive water and safety studies being demanded by our state's Department of Environmental Quality (cough) into the factory's unsuitable karst-riddled location only six miles upstream from the now impaired Buffalo National River.

As a subsurface water flow specialist, Aley has over 50 years' experience examining karst hydrologies of the Ozarks through dye tracings to identify recharge areas for springs in and near the Buffalo.

Most of that involves groundwater conditions in the Boone Formation, the geologic unit that underlies C&H and most of its waste-disposal spray fields.

Our treasure has been deemed impaired by contamination from phosphorus, nitrogen and pathogens caused by excessive nutrients from fertilizers such as animal waste.

Aley estimates that 65 percent of the water that reaches the Buffalo from areas underlain by the Boone Formation has passed into and through the karst aquifer. "So problems on the land mean problems in the river," he said.

Surface water can quickly enter the groundwater system by infiltrating soils or cascading through sinkholes and losing streams, much as what happened in 2015 when huge amounts of phosphorus and nitrates were recorded in a major storm event as running over from two spray fields into adjacent Big Creek, a major Buffalo tributary.

There's no telling how much has soaked for five years into the karst subsurface to linger for decades and head inevitably toward the Buffalo.

Normally dry streams can feed appreciable amounts of water into the groundwater system in localized areas. And while surface water enters groundwater from thousands of points, most of it discharges from a limited number of springs, Aley explained.

There is a major heavy-flow spring Aley calls Hidden Spring because it's concealed in the channel of the Buffalo River. Its exact location is unknown. "It is a very important feature of the river," he told me.

Unfortunately, he said, the National Park Service has not had the recharge area for this spring delineated and not a single groundwater trace has been conducted to it. But that doesn't mean this spring is hiding the location of its obvious recharge area, which lies squarely in the Buffalo River's water quality impairment area, "and it looks like it's telling our bureaucrats there's a problem in its recharge area."

Aley said the likely source for much of the water from Hidden Spring is the Big Creek Basin. And the factory sits smack dab in the center.

Lots of things seep into the karst groundwater of north Arkansas, Aley said. "Prudence ... dictates that great care be exercised anytime a large amount of water pollutants are stockpiled on the ground or held in a waste storage pond.

"There was a period in the karst regions of the Ozarks (late '50s to early '70s or so) when engineers were designing and building sewage lagoons for towns, industrial facilities, and some agricultural facilities," Aley continued. But that poor strategy "lost support when a number of the lagoons also lost support and either developed serious leakages or collapsed into sinkholes."

"There were multiple lagoon collapses. A sinkhole collapse in the lagoon for the city of West Plains sent 50 million gallons of sewage through the karst groundwater to Mammoth Spring, Arkansas' largest spring," Aley continued, adding the lagoons that failed typically had clay liners made from local materials, like the two ponds at C&H.

"Those with reasonable learning curves figured out that waste lagoons and storage ponds in karst areas were risky propositions," he said. "Unfortunately, the manure lobby is not a fast learner."

Regarding our Buffalo, he said, should the C&H waste ponds fail, those tons of contamination would drain into the groundwater, then into one or more springs.

It's unknown whether it would discharge from a nearby spring on Big Creek because the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (our state's paid monitor) hasn't done groundwater tracing to reveal locations potentially affected by the waste pond collapses, Aley said. If it did go to the spring, the raw waste would flow down Big Creek into the Buffalo.

He surmised the vital Hidden Spring also is a likely destination. There, the manure would head straight to the river, creating a disaster. But that's unknown because the basic and critical technical work shamefully has not been done.

The peer review panel recommended water balance calculations for the inadequately lined holding lagoons, Aley said. But the Big Creek Team didn't do that either. So, Aley concludes, no one knows if, or how much, they leak because it's unknown how much waste goes in.

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

Editorial on 08/26/2018

Print Headline: Studies ignored

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