I get it that some readers out there hope the blue-sky day will dawn when I’ll not write another word about the ongoing disgraceful contamination of our majestic Buffalo National River.
But it has long been my nature to keep hammering on important and relevant matters with a truth mallet for as long as it takes for the system to resolve them. Our country’s first national river is both important and relevant.
Having been born in the Ozarks and enjoyed the Buffalo as a teenager and since, I consider our state’s greatest attraction being steadily polluted because of political deals and special-interest lobbying a crime. This matter also deserves continual and national media attention well beyond what it has received.
I recall visiting with then-gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson about the potential dangers to the Buffalo from contamination by millions of gallons of raw waste generated by the factory our very own Department of Environmental Quality (cough) wrongly allowed to set up shop five years ago on fractured karst terrain just 6 miles upstream.
Hutchinson politely listened to my concerns that evening then said that as governor he would do everything in his power to protect the Buffalo. I believed him then because, well, I wanted to see him taking a justifiably firm stand against the forces that put their special interests ahead of what is best for all Arkansans and the nation.
And just look where things stand now with our river found contaminated with filth and dangerous pathogens. It’s happened just as geoscientists for years have predicted it would. About 15 miles of the Buffalo have been declared impaired by contaminants, presumably stemming from the results of excessive animal-based fertilizer.
Add to that the now similarly impaired Big Creek, a major tributary for the river, that flows alongside the spray fields for C&H Hog Farms. The portion of the algae-choked Buffalo that is obviously contaminated stretches below the point where Big Creek enters its flow.
No one can’t rightly say they weren’t cautioned by geoscientists, geologists and hydrologists that this was inevitable if the hog factory remained on a precarious fractured subsurface above the creek and the precious river. Professor emeritus John Van Brahana (bless the man’s caring heart) and his team of volunteers were the only ones to conduct subsurface water flow dye testing around the factory (C&H wouldn’t let them on their property).
Tests showed the dye they injected into the ground coming out miles away, traveling downhill through openings and cracks beneath surrounding hills at a speed they’d never anticipated. Their dye even showed up in the Buffalo 12 miles downstream. And that was a few years back!
But surely the governor’s Department of Environmental Quality (cough) is ignoring extensive lobbying by the Farm Bureau and others to work diligently at pinning down the exact cause of this pollution that further threatens the river with each passing day. Doesn’t the agency devoted solely to ensuring a quality environment demand to know the source of this pollution from animal fertilizer? Rule out C&H?
Why, no, they’re not really interested in discovering the source, they say. After all, several groups are continuing to monitor the situation for us, as if observing the steady demise of our national treasure is an acceptable reaction at this point. And the Farm Bureau still insists all goes swimmingly with the factory. Have these people gone hog wild or what?
Isn’t such flagrant denial slightly akin to, say, police asking neighbors to monitor a nearby home as it’s vandalized each day, but not wanting to know who’s committing the crime because they then might have to publicly identify the vandals (from a prominent police supporter family), and stop them, thereby consuming a ton of crow?
In this instance, based on timing, location and, yes, science over “raging environmentalists’ emotions,” as some rabid factory supporters like to say, all signs indicate the source likely being tons of the factory’s hog waste being steadily applied to the overloaded fields along Big Creek. So why don’t we identify the cause and bring this poisoning to a halt rather than allowing residual phosphorus (called Legacy P) to continue accumulating for another year or more as the debacle over a denied permit continues in the courtroom?
Scientists, even those contracted by the state, say this contaminant can take up to a century to finally clear from the subsurface cracks and fissures. Yet we fiddle and hem and haw while continuing to allow it right beneath our noses.
In an ideal world, a permit to operate should never have been granted to this factory without extensive — and I mean detailed and exact — water flow and subsurface studies by an independent contractor (not someone with direct ties to agricultural interests) being completed. That hasn’t come close to occurring five years later.
But even in an imperfect world, I would have hoped our state’s elected leadership, Legislature and governor included, would have listened to the loud, clear warnings, revoked the permit in this location and used a rainy day (or a sunny or partly cloudy) day fund to make these factory owners financially whole to set them up in an appropriate location, and done everything possible to protect our only Buffalo National River.
After all, even Hutchinson’s predecessor, Mike Beebe, upon leaving office, said his biggest regret was ever allowing the hog factory into the sacred Buffalo River watershed. And still the threat remains and our state’s greatest attraction is now contaminated. All for what?
I urge every Arkansan to take five minutes to express your comment in writing over the Department of Environmental Quality’s justifiable decision not to grant a new Regulation 5 permit to this grossly misplaced factory to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality at 5301 Northshore Drive, North Little Rock, 72118 (with copies to the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission at the same address); and the governor at 500 Woodlane Ave., Little Rock, 72201; or complete a comment form at www.adeq.state.ar.us.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.