C&H Hog Farm, located in the Buffalo National River watershed and the first facility in the state to get a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit, continues to stir controversy amid fears from conservationist groups that the farm poses environmental risks.
Its permit allows C&H to house 6,503 hogs, which belong to Cargill, by revenue the largest privately held company in the nation and the sole customer for C&H. Last September, the legislature approved the expenditure of $340,510 in state funds to implement pollution testing and monitoring by a team of University of Arkansas water and soil experts at the Mt. Judea farm, which is in close proximity to a major tributary of the Buffalo River. (Should the legislature approve it, testing in future years would cost around $100,000 annually.)
A coalition of public interest groups — including the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Ozark Society — has been sharply critical of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's oversight of the state permitting process. The groups also filed suit last August against the federal agencies that backed C&H's loan guarantee, over alleged problems with the environmental assessment and public notice requirements. The latest complaint from the coalition involves errors in the nutrient management plan (NMP) for spreading hog waste as fertilizer, submitted by C&H as part of its permitting process and approved by ADEQ.
The coalition wrote a letter to ADEQ last week suggesting that these errors in the NMP — incorrectly mapping three of the 17 fields used by the farm for spreading hog waste — may have led the state-funded pollution monitoring to take place on the wrong fields.
In fact, according to Andrew Sharpley, the soil scientist leading the C&H monitoring project, the UA team became aware of the errors before the testing and only tested in the proper areas. However, the coalition believes that the errors in the plan continue a pattern of mistakes, omissions and flaws in the regulatory process and should prompt ADEQ to reopen the permitting process.
ADEQ first discovered the mapping errors when officials did their first inspections of the site in July and again in January. Most of the fields that C&H uses to spray waste as fertilizer are owned by local farmers and leased to C&H. In the permit's NMP, two of the fields — Field 12 and Field 16 — had erroneous borders that included small portions of land that had not been leased to C&H. Another field, Field 5, was in the wrong location entirely.
The agency sent C&H letters informing the farmers of the errors; C&H responded by acknowledging the mistakes and stating that they would revise the map as requested by ADEQ.
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks said that the hog farm had not spread manure on any of the areas that are not owned or being leased by C&H. They have also not spread manure on the proper Field 5 that is being leased by C&H, because that field is not correctly included in the NMP, which instead incorrectly listed land not leased by C&H as Field 5.
"They will not land-apply on that field until the discrepancy is resolved," Marks said. She said that there was no hard and fast timeline for C&H to make the necessary corrections. "It'll be a minor revision," she said. "We don't feel as if the mistakes that were made in the permit, at this point ... are something that we're going to call in the whole NMP over. Especially since there's been no harm caused — there's been no spreading on those fields that was not appropriate. We want it to be corrected, but there has been no unlawful spreading at this point."
Hannah Chang, an attorney with EarthJustice, a California-based environmental law firm that is part of the legal team representing the coalition, sharply disagreed with Marks' assessment.
"If they want to add this new Field 5 ... that's north of the current Field 5, that is not in the NMP," Chang said. "It's not even in the picture. That's a substantial change under their general permit. So they need to get public notice and comment and follow an actually transparent process that involves the public, everything that didn't happen in the first place."
Further confusing matters, the first quarterly report from the UA testing team used the incorrect maps from the NMP, leading the coalition to believe that the scientists had tested the wrong areas altogether, and causing alarm among some landowners that their property — not leased to C&H — had been tested without their permission. These Mt. Judea landowners sent a letter to the UA research team expressing their concern.
Sharpley, the scientist heading the testing, said that he didn't correct the maps on the quarterly report because UA's role, by design, is supposed to be completely independent of both state agencies and the relevant stakeholders.
"The fields were improperly designated," Sharpley said. "We knew those fields were mapped wrong ... before we did any testing. We've been monitoring the fields that we have permission to monitor, the fields that were permitted to receive manure."
Since the errors in the NMP were a matter to be resolved between ADEQ and C&H, Sharpley didn't think it was his place to highlight the errors in his quarterly report. "In hindsight, I would have done things differently," he said. "It's a lot of confusion, and it's unfortunate."
Regarding the concerned landowners, Sharpley said that the UA group did not do testing on any land not leased to C&H. The scientists did test on the field leased to C&H but not correctly labeled in the NMP. Though C&H cannot spread on that field until the NMP is corrected, Sharpley and ADEQ said that this testing would be useful in establishing a baseline for future monitoring.
"If there is a clarification that makes this all make sense, we're happy to know it," Chang said. "If the UA study could be revised in a way that actually tests the land that will be receiving impacts from C&H waste, then all the better."
But, Chang said, these problems don't inspire confidence in the NMP or the regulatory process. "These misrepresentations confirm the fact that it really did fly under the radar and that there just wasn't a careful eye to this application," she said. "The fact that these misrepresentations took place are reason enough to reopen the whole permit. It's not just reopening it with respect to this field, but with respect to the entire permit because the permit was applied for and approved based on information that was not fully disclosed. Under the regulations, that's plenty of grounds for ADEQ to reopen it and at least get public comment."
Gov. Mike Beebe's spokesperson Matt DeCample said that the important point was that "they tested the fields where the nutrients were being spread. They didn't miss any of those fields.
"There's no bad news [in the first report], which is great. But to really allay concerns, it's going to take more than the first round of tests, and we know that. We have confidence in the process and the science."