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There have been plenty of aftershocks triggered by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's unexpected decision to deny C&H Hog Farms' application for a revised operating permit.

Many wondered on social media why the farrowing factory, with some 6,500 swine, was originally permitted into the environmentally sensitive Buffalo National River watershed back in 2012. Others were sympathetic with the C&H owners who have a major financial investment.

Either way, the issue that's been roiling statewide for five years remains on the shoulders of the state Department of Environmental Quality, since it chose to quietly and quickly shepherd this factory into existence under a Regulation 6 operating permit (granted solely to C&H) without sufficient due diligence, public awareness or comment.

The factory's request to move from the discontinued Reg. 6 to a Reg. 5 permit finally provided an opportunity for well over a thousand upset citizens to have their voices heard.

The agency says its decision to deny the application was made primarily on the basis of inadequate geologic studies. Requirements C&H must follow to be permitted are detailed in the same "Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook" that was used to identify standards for both permits. Officials said there were numerous shortcomings in the swine factory's request. The department's official record reportedly did not include specified geological testing information, nor sufficient geotechnical, groundwater, soils, and other testing.

Through their attorney William A. Waddell, the factory owners quickly submitted a request for "stay" of the agency's denial, to be heard this week before Administrative Law Judge Charles Mouton. They want to carry on operations as usual while they file an appeal. "There is no risk of harm to the public if a stay of the permitting decision is granted. A stay is fair, equitable, and necessary to protect the business interests of C&H and its owners," Waddell argues.

The problem here remains as it always has: improper location. For me the question of "harm to the public" is better described as legitimate risk to a precious national resource underlain with fractured karst. There has been enough geological fact-finding for many knowledgeable folks to realize the factory is operating in the wrong place and presents an unacceptable and needless risk to the national river. I certainly don't fault the owners for this mess the state needlessly created.

Dr. Todd Halihan made headlines in 2016 after conducting a transect study the previous year that suggested a large fracture and subsurface moisture near the two large waste lagoons. The department responded by ordering Harbor Environmental to drill a 120-foot investigative hole between the lagoons and the barn. During the drilling, independent Geologist Tai Hubbard noted the apparent presence of karst beneath and near the waste lagoons: "The highly weathered limestone bedrock and unconsolidated clay intervals observed ... appeared to have the characteristics of epikarst," Hubbard wrote.

Harbor's technicians also noted they were losing drilling water at about the same depths, yet didn't record how much was lost. But even I know all that water went somewhere underground. Halihan's transects also noted moisture at those same depths with his studies on a rainy afternoon in 2015.

Perhaps on the day Halihan made his transects, groundwater had accumulated at that same depth zone. I gather that's a well understood occurrence in epikarst, which transitions into karst.

When they went to fill the test hole with grout, the technicians used all the grout they had without reaching the top. The amount they used would have filled a small closet, says Brian Thompson with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. They had to return with more grout to finish the job.

To me and others, this suggests the underground opening between the lagoons and the barn was most likely a fracture. We know for certain there is a good-sized void of unknown dimensions within the karst subsurface.

As for any "harm to the public," the waste management handbook contains a "Vulnerability to Risk Matrix" specifically intended to inform engineers what a bad idea it is to build such facilities in fragile geologic conditions. This matrix table specifically says when voids or karst are detected within five feet of a proposed holding lagoon's bottom, the vulnerability becomes "very high" and the engineer should "evaluate other storage alternatives."

So that tells me in the case of C&H, with waste lagoon depths being within a matter of feet at their 20-foot bottoms from both karst and this opening discovered beneath the surface, this matrix table not only warns of risk, but basically advises anyone not to be building waste lagoons in such a location.

Wonder why the state didn't demand these same critical geological assessments in 2012? I believe they would have discovered then the apparent risks Halihan and Harbor found in time to shut it down! This location unquestionably has always presented a huge risk to our national jewel.

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

Editorial on 01/16/2018

Print Headline: Aftershocks

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