Pig farm threatens Buffalo River

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In 1972, something miraculous happened in Congress — at least by today’s standards. A Republican, working with Democratic colleagues, passed legislation that was then signed by a Republican president.

The bipartisan effort created the Buffalo National River, America’s first, establishing a precedent. Since then another four rivers have been added to the list and placed under the stewardship of the National Park Service.

We must protect these treasures. Several aging sewage plants currently threaten the New River in West Virginia, and the Big South Fork in Kentucky faces issues with acid draining from coal mines.

This brings us to Arkansas’s Buffalo, where it all began. Saved once from harm, the Buffalo faces a new and impending pollution problem — a poorly placed industrial hog farm — that will likely change the nature of this magnificent river.

The Buffalo is an ecological jewel that meanders 135 miles through the heart of the Ozark Mountains. When this free-flowing stream of pristine waters, carved bluffs, and dramatic waterfalls became part of the National Park System it was to be spared from dams and development — or so we thought.

Just a few miles away, on a major tributary of the Buffalo, a factory farm of 6,500 pigs is now in operation. The animals are owned by international conglomerate Cargill and raised by a local group called C & H Hog Farms. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) granted the permit without public hearings or even putting a public notice in a newspaper. Not even the National Park Service, the agency charged with protecting the Buffalo, was consulted. How did this happen? It was a combination of failed leadership among multiple agencies and a political culture that favors Big AG.

There have been pig farmers in the Buffalo River watershed in the past. But these were mom and pop operations with a hundred or so head. Such farmers are becoming extinct, being put out of business and replaced by industrial farms, not just in Arkansas but across America. Agriculture is an important part of our state’s economy. But locating a factory hog farm next to a national treasure is irresponsible and the damage to our billion-dollar tourism industry will be irreversible.

The pigs at C & H Farms will generate as much fecal matter and urine as a city of 35,000 people. The 2 million gallons of waste per year is being flushed untreated into lagoons and then spread over hayfields. When the rains come, the runoff will flow into Big Creek and then into the Buffalo River downstream.

But runoff is not the only problem. The Ozarks consist of porous limestone rock called Karst geology. Anything placed on the land leaches through the fissures and into the underground water system. The Buffalo National River is being threatened from above and from below. And then there are the noxious fumes that residents and school children of the community of Mt. Judea, Ark., must endure. The state’s response so far has been to set aside money to monitor the amount of water pollution. All that means is that we Arkansans will be the first to tell the world that “hog doin’s” have found their way into our precious Buffalo River.

What are the chances of water pollution from this factory hog farm? Nationally known hydrologist Dr. Van Brahana, who is studying the region’s hydrology, says that there is a 95 percent probability rate. Even ADEQ Director Teresa Marks admitted in a recent New York Times article that pollution was certain. There are many places suitable for a factory hog farm, but the watershed of a national river is not one of them. The feces and urine from the hogs create a toxic brew of pollutants. It threatens the Buffalo’s unique eco-system and endangers the health of local residents and park visitors.

The Buffalo is the crown jewel of The Natural State and an intricate part of the Ozark heritage, but it belongs to all Americans.

Each year, more than a million people from around the country hike, camp, fish, and canoe in and around the river. It is one of the few unspoiled environments in America — a timeless, spiritual haven.

It is also an economic engine generating more than 38 million dollars and 528 jobs in one of the poorer areas of the state.

Compare those numbers to the five or so low paying jobs provided by the factory hog farm.

More than 40 years ago, a disparate group of visionaries formed an alliance to create America’s first national river. The cause was championed by conservation groups, politicians of all stripes, as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Now a coalition of local and national groups is trying to save it — again. We, as former Arkansas congressmen from different sides of the aisle, are joining that fight. The permit must be revoked and the factory hog farm moved from its current location. We understand that factory farmers have a right to make a living, but not at the expense of a national river and the surrounding community.

Bethune represented Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District from 1979 to 1985.  Snyder represented the same district from 1997 to 2011.