by David Ramsey
Gov. Mike Beebe’s decision to pursue the use of rainy day funds to establish additional testing and monitoring at C&H hog farm raises an obvious question. If a farm that went through the state’s process for a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit needs additional state-funded safeguards, is the permit working in the first place?
Asked why this particular facility demanded additional scrutiny, the governor said, “It’s different. And it’s large, and the public concern, and its proximity to a treasure like the Buffalo River — all of those were factors that entered into my position.”
According to ADEQ Director Teresa Marks, however, none of those factors could have been legally taken into consideration when ADEQ approved the permit in the first place. A farm just like C&H could apply for a CAFO permit to operate near the Buffalo tomorrow; so long as it complied with the requirements of the general permit, it would be approved. Would the state once again fly in with rainy-day funds?
The governor said it was unclear at this point whether or not the permit system itself needed reform: “Is this isolated — is this an instance that we’re not likely to see repeated or is this something that portends something that would cause a change generally in policy? Those are good legitimate questions.”
A little background: The state’s CAFO permit, established as a general permit in 2011, came about in order to comply with an updated set of federal rules regarding CAFOs released by the Environmental Protection Agency. Previously, operations in the state with holdings for liquid animal waste had to get what was known as a “Regulation 5” permit, which is an individual permit. As the names imply, general permits are essentially templates, not individualized to the specific applicant; by contrast, individual permits are “issued on a case-by-case basis and are specific to each applicant facility.”
General permits require less advance scrutiny and public notice, and are less complicated, than individual permits. They also do not take into account site-specific factors such as the particular geology of a region of the state. The individualized Reg. 5 permit remains available as an alternative to a CAFO permit and some supporters of the farm believe that in retrospect, that route may have tempered some of the controversy. However, the general permit was likely a faster process for C&H. In any case, it’s hard to believe that C&H will be the one and only applicant to pursue a CAFO permit.
One question is whether the general permit process is appropriate for CAFOs. The bigger question is whether the permit itself has enough safeguards to protect the environment. ADEQ, the Farm Bureau, and the C&H farmers believe that it does. One of the main goals of the proposed U of A monitoring program will be to find out. Normal ADEQ monitoring would simply entail making sure that C&H was following the permit’s rules, whereas this program would seek to determine whether or not the facility was causing environmental harm despite the permit's regulations.
Marks said that both the general permit itself, and C&H's nutrient management plan (NMP) developed as part of the permit, could potentially be recalled and revised if the U of A finds that "there is still the risk of harm" even if the farmers follow the permit and the NMP.