The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has denied C&H Hog Farms' application for a new operating permit in the Buffalo National River's watershed.
The decision ends 643 days -- just more than 21 months -- of waiting since C&H applied for a new permit to continue its farming operations in a slightly modified way.
C&H, which abuts a Buffalo River tributary in Newton County, has been operating on an indefinite extension of its expired permit. That permit falls under a different regulation and stipulates different numbers of hogs than the permit it was requesting.
The department explained its denial in three sentences in a three-page document.
"ADEQ denies issuance of the permit after determining that the record lacks necessary and critical information to support granting of the permit.
"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 owners of the farm -- Jason Henson, Philip Campbell and Richard Campbell -- did not respond Wednesday evening to messages left for them seeking comment.
The farm's attorney, Bill Waddell, called the decision "incomprehensible." He said the farmers had made every effort to make sure the department had the requisite information.
"Once ADEQ undertook to tell C&H what was necessary to complete its application and C&H relied on what it was told, ADEQ is estopped to deny the application on the ground that information was not provided," Waddell wrote in an email to the newspaper.
Waddell said he would appeal the decision. The farm has 30 days to do so.
Others involved in the case for the more than five years since the hog farm received its original permit expressed surprise at the decision.
Steve Eddington, a spokesman for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said his organization was "surprised" and "disappointed."
Richard Mays, an attorney who has represented the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance in its opposition to the hog farm's operation within the watershed, called the denial a "watershed moment."
Jessie Green, a former department employee who is now executive director of the White River Waterkeeper, upon hearing the news sent a text of "OMG! I have never been more surprised."
Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said his organization had asked for many of the same documents that the department asked for in December to supplement the hog farm's permit application.
Some documents detailed previously unreported wells on and near the farm's property, Watkins said, but some of the documentation of their locations was inconsistent and one well was labeled as being in multiple locations.
The alliance also emphasized the handbook, which the department referred to in its denial.
"It appeared to us that they had ignored it altogether when they first applied," Watkins said. "It looks like ADEQ held their feet to the fire on that one. I commend them for doing so."
The department posted its decision after business hours Wednesday, along with 422 pages of the responses it received during the public comment period on the permit request.
The new permit would have allowed the farm to have up to six boars of about 450 pounds apiece, 2,672 sows of at least 400 pounds each and 750 piglets of about 14 pounds each. The request for the permit also estimated that two waste-holding ponds would contain up to 2,337,074 gallons of hog manure. That amount was listed as similar to what the farm has now, and any additional waste and wastewater would be applied over certain sites as fertilizer.
The farm's current permit allows for 4,000 piglets and 2,503 sows.
While C&H sought to increase the number of hogs on-site, officials said, it didn't expect a significant difference in the amount of waste the animals would produce.
C&H has become the target of groups that fear the hog farm's presence is an environmental risk to the Buffalo River. The farm sits along Big Creek, 6 miles from where the creek flows into the Buffalo River.
The Buffalo River attracted 1.8 million tourists in 2016, and C&H's proximity to the national river has caused concern that manure from the farm -- the largest hog operation ever to operate in the county -- could make its way into the Buffalo River and pollute it.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality received more than 1,000 comments in response to the permit application, the first time opponents of the farm have had the opportunity to comment on the farm's existence. Opponents have said lax notification rules of C&H's original permit request kept people from opposing the farm's construction in the first place.
C&H's operators applied April 7, 2016, for an Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission Regulation 5 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for liquid animal waste. The farm's current permit is a Regulation 6 permit, which is similar to a Regulation 5 but has different notification and periodic renewal requirements. The department has decided to discontinue issuing Regulation 6 permits.
Also, the Department of Environmental Quality spent months before the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission's administrative law judge litigating a permit approval for a facility to spread manure from the C&H farm. After the permit approval was upheld, and nearly a year after C&H applied for it, the department gave preliminary approval to the application.
Green, who opposes the farm's location, wondered Wednesday how much of a celebration was in order.
If the hog farmers want to continue their operations, they could apply for another permit and propose using a wastewater-treatment plant instead of the two hog waste lagoons the farm has now,she said. Or they could propose trucking the waste off-site.
"I'm still not sure how I feel about it," Green said. "I still think this is a step in the right direction because one of the concerns I had about Reg 5 is there's no renewal on those," meaning the public would not have an opportunity to comment again on the permit as a whole, had it been issued.
Mays said he hopes the denial means that officials will be more cautious about issuing permits to hog farms in the future. He noted that large hog farms in other states have caused pollution problems.
"It can be a huge mess," he said. "You need to be very careful about where you locate them and how they're built. You need to be cautious about protecting the environment, because it can ruin it very quickly."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette saying the farmers should be able to operate with "appropriate safeguards" pending their expected appeal of the department's decision.
"Private property rights are fundamental to Americans and even more so in Arkansas where agriculture is our number one industry," Hutchinson said. "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."
In a review of Department of Environmental Quality data and records last year, the Democrat-Gazette found that hog farms spilled manure into Arkansas waterways at least 16 times between 1996 and 2017, according to state inspections. More than 50 fish were killed in a pond in Pope County as the result of a spill in 1998, but the spills were not of the devastating scale that have occurred in other states.
Records don't always detail follow-up inspections, but in some cases the causes of the leaks were addressed right away.
Spills, leaks, overflows and unauthorized discharges were noted 339 times in the 1,332 inspection violation records analyzed by the newspaper. That figure does not count multiple spills listed in a single report, because multiple spills often were not recorded as separate spills.
In the past 10 years, records indicate that leaks have occurred less frequently as the number of hog farms has diminished.
More hogs were raised on farms in Newton and Searcy counties 20 years ago than are being raised there today. In 1997, 17 hog farms were permitted to hold more than 4,800 sows, 7,000 smaller pigs and 90 boars, according to Arkansas permit and compliance records. In 2017, five farms had about 4,000 sows, 5,700 smaller pigs and 15 boars.
C&H Hog Farms was the first and remains the only federally classified medium or large hog farm in the area.
C&H's operators have explored expanding their hog production.
Henson and representatives from JBS Live Pork, which supplies hogs to C&H Hog Farms, held a public meeting in October in Clarksville regarding a proposed 5,200-sow operation, parts of which would be in a flood-prone area of Johnson County. They said it would not replace C&H Hog Farms.
No permit application has been submitted for that facility.
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