- NOT IN MY WATERSHED: Carol Bitting (left) and Lin Wellford after last week's hearing at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality headquarters in North Little Rock.
For over three years now, a fight has raged over C&H Hog Farm, a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Mt. Judea that houses some 6,500 swine near Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. Environmentalists have long feared that liquid hog waste — which the farm spreads on its surrounding acreage — would seep into the region's porous geology and find its way into the beloved river. Last August, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission enacted a five-year moratorium on new large-scale factory hog farms in the Buffalo watershed with the backing of Governor Hutchinson and the legislature. The ban did not affect existing permits, such as the one held by C&H.
But a facility near Deer (Newton County) called EC Farms may have found a loophole that will allow it to serve as a disposal site for up to 6.7 million gallons of liquid hog waste annually.
EC Farms is owned by Ellis Campbell, a cousin of C&H owners Richard and Phillip Campbell. Until this year, it held a permit for a relatively small hog-farming operation — about 300 animals — but the farm seems to have been closed since 2013. The permit, however, remained active. This summer, EC Farms applied for a permit modification (rather than a new permit) that would allow it to "land farm" hog waste originating with another facility — specifically, C&H. When the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted the modification in July, the state environmental regulator gave the go-ahead to EC Farms to spread millions of gallons of pig manure on its property each year.
ADEQ's decision to grant the modification attracted critical public comments from defenders of the Buffalo River, and three area residents — Carol Bitting, Lin Wellford and Dr. Nancy Haller, who call themselves "The Three Grandmothers" — petitioned for an appeal. At a Nov. 16 hearing at ADEQ headquarters in North Little Rock, PC&E Commission administrative judge Charlie Moulton heard arguments over whether the permit should stand. The room was packed.
"I can say unequivocally this is the most well-attended motion hearing I've ever had," Moulton said.
Attorney Richard Mays represented the three petitioners. He told Moulton that the modified permit is "a roundabout way for C&H farms to avoid getting a permit to distribute this waste. The amount of this waste is the critical issue. You've got a 6,000-animal operation ... [generating] millions of gallons of waste." After the hearing, Mays said he believed C&H's own on-site waste storage and disposal capacity was nearing its limit and so the farm needed to find a place to dump the excess.
Tracy Rothermel, general counsel for the ADEQ director's office, argued that the appeal should be dismissed, citing problems with how the petitioners worded their appeal and saying they failed to outline their full legal and factual objections. Bill Waddell, an attorney for EC Farms owner Ellis Campbell, agreed with ADEQ.
Lin Wellford said she and the others didn't realize they needed a lawyer when they first petitioned. (Mays only began representing them after the fact.) She told a reporter that the EC Farms permit modification was "choreographed to get around the moratorium" on new CAFOs in the Buffalo watershed. Wellford questioned why ADEQ, the state's environmental regulator, was using taxpayer dollars to defend EC Farms while "the Buffalo River is being allowed to be degraded."
Wellford noted in her appeal that allowing C&H to use other fields for its pig waste will skew the validity of the University of Arkansas's monitoring efforts of pollution on Big Creek. She said the runoff from EC will also impact Shop Creek and the Little Buffalo, adding. "This is seven more miles of this National River being imperiled, all to allow one hog CAFO to operate."
"This [river] is supposed to exist as a resource for my grandchildren and your grandchildren," Wellford said.
Waddell, the counsel for EC Farms, told the judge that his client "has tried to comply with the regulations in asking for a permit. He's not asking for any favoritism."
Moulton found much fault with the petitioners' complaints and agreed with Rothermel. But he also questioned whether ADEQ had the authority to convert EC Farms' hog-farming permit into a new permit.
"You're basically converting one type of facility to another ... a sow facility to a land farming facility," he said. "[Those are] two different types of permits, isn't that what happened?"
Rothermel said the permit simply "evolved." She told Moulton that "it isn't really a new permit. ... Aspects were removed from the permit, and then updated aspects were added." However, Moulton pointed out that ADEQ's regulations identify two different types of permits that operate under two different regulations. "That's not my language. That's the department's language," he said.
Moulton said he needed both parties to deliver briefs on the issue by Tuesday, Nov. 29. If another hearing is necessary, it will be held Dec. 5 or 6 at 9 a.m., the judge said.*
*The print edition of this article mistakenly stated the next hearing date as Nov. 29.