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The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's decision to reject a revised operating permit for C&H Hog Farms in the Buffalo National River watershed brought welcome surprise for many Arkansans.

In appearing to finally move toward protecting the country's first national river, the agency triggered cautious celebrations among those who've devoted themselves to protecting this vital artery that nurtures God's Country.

I say "cautious" because our governor quickly issued a statement saying C&H should be able to continue operating with "appropriate safeguards" pending its lawyer's expected appeal.

Hutchinson also gave his approving nod to private property rights and agriculture without specifically mentioning the Buffalo's remarkably unique value and significant economic and recreational benefits for our state. After all, it's not just any stream or environment, which is why such widespread concern exists.

The governor said: "Private property rights are fundamental to Americans and even more so in Arkansas where agriculture is our No. 1 industry. The ADEQ has an important responsibility in balancing the commitment to private property rights with the need to protect our streams, water systems and environment. ADEQ determined that the hog farm application within the Buffalo River Watershed was insufficient in technical detail to provide assurance that the hog farm waste in the future will not be a risk to the watershed. This determination was reached by the technical and professional staff at ADEQ."

Sounds to me like a determination best made in 2012 before the agency approved the factory's initial permit in a secretive and hurried decision that later prompted former Gov. Mike Beebe to call this wrongheaded decision his worst regret in office.

Being in this business 47 years, I admit to being a tad cynical at times. For instance, cynical me wouldn't be surprised to envision an imaginary scenario like this unfolding:

The Department of Environmental Quality takes 463 days in regular office "hog huddles" to concoct a politically savvy way to escape this stink it's created for itself. Meanwhile, the factory keeps operating indefinitely using the agency's original 2012 permit that expired way back in April 2016.

Finally, a brighter agency bulb says: "Hey, why don't we deny the request for the new permit, which will mean this flaming pigskin will be lateraled by the factory lawyer's certain appeal to the Pollution Control and Ecology Commissioners? If the PC&E decision is appealed into the courts it could perhaps languish for years.

"This way," my illusory cynic side continues, "even if our decision eventually is overturned, the factory has continued operating as usual under our expired permit. Either way, we can always say we were the ones who denied the permit!"

My wild speculation here probably doesn't hold an ounce of water, but neither me nor neighbor dog, Sparky, believe the agency would foolishly make this momentous decision without approval from the governor (who appoints its director.)

It says it denied the Regulation 5 permit because of insufficient critical information that actually was required back in 2012: "The record fails to include the requisite geological, geotechnical, groundwater, soils, structural, and testing information specified in Reg. 5.402. Without the detailed geophysical and engineering data required by the Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook, as amended, ADEQ is unable to ascertain compliance with Reg. 5.402."

The argument against locating a meat-producing factory with spray fields in karst terrain along a major Buffalo tributary has never been with the factory owners, or their abilities and concerns. Nor has it been with any alleged opposition to farming or farmers, although special interests have dishonestly painted the disagreement that way for political advantage.

The state wrongheadedly allowed a large concentrated animal feeding operation into the worst possible location, which is exactly why years ago that same agency placed a specific moratorium on permitting such factories into the Buffalo watershed.

Last week's denial is commendable. The action also provides a unique opportunity for the Department of Environmental Quality director now to permanently reinstate the needed moratorium in the Buffalo. It stands to reason if this intensely scrutinized factory can't meet the high environmental standards to operate safely in this kart-riddled watershed, no other can.

Also in fairness, Hutchinson inherited this mess. I believe he has done his best to walk a political tightrope with political forces like the Farm Bureau and Pork Producers tugging on one side as thousands of Arkansans who speak for the river yank the other.

The factory's expected appeal means this unfortunate ordeal remains far from finished. So the many Arkansans who wish this was over will continue to wait and watch and make their collective voices heard. It's always right to do the right thing.

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

Editorial on 01/14/2018

Print Headline: Permit denied

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