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The state's buyout of a controversial hog farm near the Buffalo National River is an answer to a huge environmental concern.

Defenders of the scenic river, the first in the United States to carry the national river designation, are rightly celebrating the news.

The threat of pollution from this hog farm -- real or perceived -- will theoretically end in 180 days.

At least the farm's operation within the Buffalo's watershed will cease.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week that the state has reached agreement with owners of C&H Hog Farms to close its large-scale swine operation near Mount Judea in Newton County.

The farm has had 2,500 sows and is allowed to have up to 4,000 piglets at the site near Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo just 6.6 miles away.

Brothers Richard and Phillip Campbell and their cousin, Jason Henson, started the feeding operation in 2013, after securing the necessary permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

That's when the trouble began.

The farmers did what the state agency required of them to get the permit. The state agency, however, gave what opponents of the hog farm maintain was inadequate notice to the public and to other stakeholders.

Had others known what was happening, the uproar over location of a commercial swine operation near the Buffalo would have happened before the permit was issued.

Instead, it happened afterwards and continues to this day -- complete with long-running regulatory squabbles and litigation.

Those efforts might have eventually shut down the hog farm operation.

The deal struck by Hutchinson and the Department of Arkansas Heritage to buy out the farmers gets in done in 180 days and, importantly, leaves the farmers whole.

Hutchinson, in announcing the deal, emphasized that the farmers got their permit fairly and have operated the hog farm with "the utmost care" from the start.

"They have not done anything wrong, but the state should never have granted that permit for a large-scale hog farm operation in the Buffalo River watershed," he said.

The $6.2 million buyout will cover the remaining balance on a multimillion-dollar loan and compensate the farmers for additional closure-related costs. The farm owners will cut short their contract for sale of pigs and grant the state a conservation easement on the land, limiting its future use.

The $6.2 million will come mostly from the state, but Hutchinson has reached out to The Nature Conservancy for help. Its share won't be more than $1 million and will likely be less.

That initial permit for the hog farm was issued on former Gov. Mike Beebe's watch.

The hog farm operation has since been intensely monitored, as state and federal regulators and others watched for any impact on water quality downstream.

That monitoring should continue as whatever waste from the hog farm (or other sources) makes its way through the karst terrain or in runoff into the creek and river.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson wants to make permanent a temporary ban the state has placed on new medium- and large-scale hog farms in the watershed.

The regulatory change is subject to legislative review, which begs the question: Will a permanent ban happen?

Hutchinson has given his Department of Environmental Quality clear enough direction.

But there are others who want to protect farmers' rights. Most notable is the Arkansas Farm Bureau, a powerful lobby that has stood squarely with the C&H owners in the battle over the hog farm.

A Farm Bureau profile of the families that jointly own C&H describes them as ninth-generation farmers in Newton County. They're like a lot of the farmers the organization serves all over Arkansas and it sounded a little like the Farm Bureau regrets giving up the fight for the families' rights.

"This is a private, and personal, decision by the owners of C&H Hog Farm, which, no doubt, was based on what they felt is best for their future," reads a statement from spokesman Steve Eddington. "Arkansas Farm Bureau's support for the owners of C&H has not wavered, and we wish them success in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue."

He did emphasize that there has been "no credible scientific evidence" that the farm caused harm to the Buffalo River while C&H became "one of the most productive swine producers in the region."

Farm interests have long held sway among many Arkansas lawmakers and regulators for that matter.

Expect that sentiment to continue, should vigilance from environmentalists ever falter.

While the fight for the Buffalo has definitely carried some costly lessons for both sides, the fight to protect the river can't be over.

The battle is forever.

Commentary on 06/19/2019

Print Headline: A forever battle

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