As noted on John Brummett's blog yesterday, Gov. Mike Beebe plans to proceed with a request for legislative approval to spend $250,000 in rainy day funds on testing and monitoring at the C&H Hog Farm in Mt. Judea. The facility has stirred controversy because of its proximity to a tributary of the Buffalo River and concerns about impacts on the community of Mt. Judea. Beebe said that he was hopeful that C&H — and surrounding landowners who have agreed to let C&H spray hog waste as fertilizer on their fields — would be on board. However, if approved by the Legislative Council, the state would have the legal authority, Beebe said, to proceed with the program with or without the permission of C&H or the owners of the spray fields.
"We’d always do normal monitoring under existing laws," Beebe said. "I felt like, with all of the concern that exists with regard to potential harm to the Buffalo or any of the watershed up there, I just thought we’d go further, be double sure and put in extensive monitoring — so if there is a problem, if the fears are legitimate, then we’ve got data and can immediately take steps to do whatever it takes to protect the environment." The monitoring would be conducted by water experts from the University of Arkansas, who are still developing the details and scope of the program.
Beebe said that administration officials would make a presentation on the program at the next Legislative Council meeting (set for next month). "I don't anticipate any problem," he said.
There have been murmurs that Cargill, the owner of the hogs and the farm’s sole customer, has given pushback to the idea (Cargill told us they had no comment until they see the actual proposal).
The governor, who said that he has not spoken directly with Cargill, said "we don't care about that."
The Farm Bureau and a bipartisan group of legislators — including Democrats Greg Leding and Warwick Sabin and Republicans David Branscum and Kelly Linck — have been generally positive about the idea of third-party testing. C&H has as well, though any resistance from Cargill would likely give them pause.
"We are hopeful for something that all parties can agree on," Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Eddington said. "Certainly the governor has some latitude to pursue testing and monitoring. But anything that significant is going to work best when all the appropriate parties are in agreement on the best way to accomplish it. We continue to work with the farmers at C&H to protect their interests."
The potential monitoring program would be led by Andrew Sharpley, a renowned soil and water quality expert at the University of Arkansas. Sharpley's team would in effect be deputized by the state, under the auspices and authority of ADEQ, to conduct their study. The governor said that after researching the question, his office has concluded that the state has the authority to do so "with or without landowners' permission" from either C&H or owners of the spray fields.
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks said that she has not yet had extensive discussions with the U of A researchers about the project. "We want to go ahead and let them do whatever they need to do to make sure they get a good and thorough study," she said. Marks said that if they discovered a problem linked to the farm, they could potentially recall and revise either the general permit that C&H is operating under or the specific nutrient management plan C&H developed as part of the permit (in either scenario, C&H would be given a period of time to make corrections, during which they could continue to operate under the general permit).
"If none of that works, ultimately it could all be denied," Beebe added. He said that it was important that the study focus on any possible environmental harm directly connected to the operation of the farm. "If that shows there’s harm to that river then it would be my instructions that we do whatever is necessary to immediately cease that harm," he said. Beebe said it was difficult to speculate on state response because it is unknown what the potential U of A study will find, but in the case of an extreme problem: "if it was catastrophic, all immediate remedial action including but not limited to 'cease and desist' would be an option available for the state."
One point to bear in mind politically: the phrase "with or without landowners' permission" is certain to raise the hackles of folks in Newton County; there is the potential for an ugly fight if not everyone gives the okay to the testing program.