Save the Buffalo River! America's first national river threatened by Cargill factory hog farm

Imagine the most beautiful place in your state. It's so nice!

Now, imagine six thousand hogs pooping all over that place. Not so nice, right?

That, in an extremely oversimplified way, is what the battle to save Arkansas' Buffalo National River is all about.

Here's what happened:

In March of this year, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) approved a permit for the an industrial-scale hog farm that will sit near Big Creek, which is a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, a place which just so happens to be one of the most beautiful areas in the entire state. And one of the most lucrative tourist destinations.

And this is also no ordinary hog farm. It is technically a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO, which in other words is a place to fatten up a whole bunch of animals in a short amount of time. It is an important distinction, because the term "farm" still conjures up images of the small family farm with the red barn, instead of this industrial-scale facility.

So, this CAFO is being operated by C&H Farms, who are Arkansas farmers, but the industrial agriculture giant Cargill is the only customer. This is also, believe it or not, Arkansas' first CAFO, so it was remarkable to learn how quietly and quickly ADEQ handled such an important, precedent-setting permit approval.

For example, public notice that a CAFO was being considered was so limited, not even the superintendent of the Buffalo National River knew about the application until it had already been approved by ADEQ.

The CAFO will house up to 6,500 hogs and there will be some 2 million gallons of waste produced annually, which is a lot of hog crap.

After collecting the hog feces and urine in clay-bottomed ponds, the waste will be sprayed onto a dozen or so nearby fields. As gross as that sounds, it is a pretty standard way for factory farms to dispense of animal waste, but rarely are these industrial hog farms so close to a nationally protected river. And, you know, rain is a thing. And so are floods. So it defies common sense to think that this hog factory is not going to eventually end up polluting one of the most beautiful rivers in America.

So, yeah, this is a big deal.

The Activist History of the Buffalo National River

Flickr: boston_public_library/CC BY 2.0

To appreciate the anger and frustration surrounding this issue, it is important to know the backstory of the Buffalo River.

The Buffalo River is ancient and strikingly beautiful. Some sections are lined with high stone bluffs and caves that have been carved over the course of millennia and were used as shelter for Archaic Period native Americans and later settlers in the early 1800s.

© Kate Beebe

Today, the Buffalo River and Buffalo River State Parks are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Each year, more than a million people float in canoes down the pristine water beneath the bluffs and take in the beautiful terrain. National Geographic even named the Buffalo National River #2 on its list of Top 10 Underappreciated National Parks.

All in all, Buffalo National River preserves some of the finest scenery in the central United States, as well as one of the country’s best float streams.

And this wouldn't be the case if environmentalists hadn't fought and won a similar battle to protect this river in the 1960s when some people wanted to dam the Buffalo for hydroelectric power.

However, thanks to the work of the anti-dam Ozark Society and environmentalist Neil Compton, a bipartisan coalition of citizens, businessmen and politicians were rallied to protect the river:

A decade of political maneuverings, speeches, and media attention—including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—came to a head in December 1965, when Governor Orval Faubus wrote the Corps of Engineers that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo River. The Corps withdrew its proposal for a dam. In 1966, John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated Trimble for the Third Congressional District seat and indicated that he would support the concept of creating a park along the river. Congressman Hammerschmidt and Senators J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River park legislation in 1967. The final park legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings were held in late 1971. In February 1972, Congress voted to establish the nation’s first “national river.”

Because of it's National River designation, the Buffalo is supposed to be especially protected, according to Wikipedia.

The National River designation protects natural rivers from industrial uses, impoundments and other obstructions that may change the natural character of the river or disrupt the natural habitat for the flora and fauna that live in or near the river.

It is this question of how the hog waste from the Cargill CAFO will affect the flora and fauna of the protected river that has led a coalition of environmental groups to sue the State of Arkansas.

The fight to Save the Buffalo

Shiloh Museum/Public Domain

Soon after news of the CAFO permit approval spread, a Change.org petition was circulated, generating more than 11,000 signatures.

And in April and May, a broad coalition of groups was formed to oppose the CAFO, including the National Parks Conservation Association, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, Arkansas Canoe Club and the Ozark Society.

In June, Dr. John Van Brahana, a a renowned hydrogeologist and an expert in Arkansas’ karst geology, sent a letter to AQED asking that the permit for the CAFO be suspended until more research could be done to see how the hog waste will affect the flora and fauna of the nearby rivers.

Brahana notes that the Big Creek area – where C & H Hog Farms was permitted – includes karst geologic conditions with a fragile ecosystem. In karst areas, groundwater flow enlarges the dimensions of the conduits through which groundwater flows. The groundwater moves as quickly as water in a stream, but the path of that flow is difficult to predict and would be capable of transporting sediment, organic matter, fecal waste, and dissolved solids from the factory farm. Within this geology, if a waste-lagoon were to breach, there would be little opportunity for it to be naturally remedied or lessened.

The letter goes on to read: “I know of no active karst consultant who recommends that a CAFO be sited on karstified limestone, particularly upgradient from so sensitive a natural resource as the Buffalo National River, with its direct-contact use by canoeists, fisherman, and swimmers.”

Also in June, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, Ozark Society, and Arkansas Canoe Club sent a demand letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) requesting that those agencies review how the permit and a loan guarantee was approved for this CAFO.

After a month of inaction from those agencies, in early August, the coalition filed a lawsuit against the Farm Service Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration:

“FSA and SBA failed to provide the public notice and undertake the environmental review and consultations required by law, so we’re asking the court to set aside the loan guarantees and instruct the agencies to comply,” said Emily Jones of the National Parks Conservation Association. “We have asked FSA and SBA to do the right thing without litigation, but they have not, and today we find ourselves in court to protect the Buffalo River, a national treasure of immeasurable worth.”

While these legal actions will take time to play out in the courts, because the permit has already been approved, operations at the CAFO have already begun. The hogs have arrived.

Meanwhile, Governor Mike Beebe plans to use rainy day funds to pay for a water testing program.

This, however, is not an adequate plan to protect the river, since by the time hog feces show up in the water, it is already polluted. In a public statement, responding to Gov. Beebe's plan, the coalition voiced similar concerns:

The bottom line, however, is the State of Arkansas should be preventing contamination from reaching the Buffalo River, not monitoring the problem. While monitoring – if done well – is better than no monitoring, we question why the Governor will not take more decisive action and at least review the facility’s ill-conceived permit. To be helpful, any soil and water testing must be thorough, based on sound science, and coupled with a plan for swift action to address violations. However, the fact remains that once contamination is detected, it is too late to undo the damage.

Indeed.

What next for the Buffalo River?

For more on this story, I highly recommend this cover story from The Arkansas Times. They interviewed most of the key players on both sides of this issue.

Michael Dougherty, president of the Buffalo River Chamber of Commerce and one of founders of the Alliance, said he has "every confidence that these farmers are going to do everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen. But the experience of wet hog CAFOs is very checkered. ... We have a national treasure in the Buffalo National River. One failure and this national treasure is compromised."

According to Brahana, the karst terrain gives additional cause for concerns about the clay storage ponds. "In some cases I've seen, relatively thick sequences of clay just get blown out there in the fractures themselves," Brahana said. "The weight of the water will blow those out so it's almost like somebody pulling a plug in a bathtub and it swirls, down it goes. Those are worst-case scenarios. But those are relatively common."

The Times goes on to report on tensions this debate has caused in the small community of Mount Judea, including the possibility of violence in reaction to locals speaking out about the CAFO.

Newton County is also a place where a history of violence, particularly arson, still keeps folks on edge.

"You've got some bad eggs," one Mt. Judea area resident said. "They'll burn houses, kill people and bury them. They'll flat do it."

"They may be exaggerating, or they may not," said a resident of Jasper, the county seat and one of the biggest towns, population 466. "Where a lot of people live, by the time the sheriff gets there it's too late."

To be clear, nobody suggested that any of the C&H farmers would be involved in threats of any kind. Even among those that had concerns about the farm, the most common descriptions of Henson and the Campbells were "good boys," "good old boys," and "good Christian men."

Still for whatever reason, numerous area residents I spoke with mentioned a general fear of getting "burned out" if they stirred trouble. "It may not be so," one said. "But we've had a lot houses burnt down round here for some reason." Henson and the Campbells brushed this off; Philip Campbell said that he is the chief of the volunteer fire department and hasn't heard anything of the kind.

Of course, it doesn't take anything so extreme to make locals hesitant to speak publicly about any problems they might have with C&H. As nearly everyone I spoke with reminded me, Mt. Judea is "a very small community." People said they were reluctant to speak ill of their neighbors; many noted that the Campbells were an influential family in the county. As Henson himself said, "the community that we live in, you mind your own business and keep your mouth shut. That's our community."

On a positive note, the Arkansas Times also reports that a bipartisan fundraiser is in the works to Save the Buffalo River:

Want a little bipartisanship? Here's some. Sept. 12, former U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder and his wife the Rev. Betsy Singleton, are holding a fund-raiser at their home to raise money for the effort to oppose the hog farm on a major tributary of the Buffalo River. Special guests include former Democratic U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers and his wife Betty and former Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune and his wife Lana. Co-hosts include a number of familiar legal, philanthropic and conservationist names and groups.

So will the permit be revoked? Will hog waste from the CAFO contaminate the Buffalo River? We'll have to wait and see. But the controversy alone -- and specifically the idea that the Buffalo River may be tainted with hog feces -- may have already done irreparable damage to the reputation of the Buffalo River National Park, which could hurt tourism dollars as fewer people choose to canoe the river.

It is sad to think that forty or fifty years ago a grassroots movement of Arkansans from both sides of the political spectrum came together and successfully pushed back against the industrialists that wanted to dam up this beautiful river, even creating the United States' first National River in the process. And now this wonderful spot that millions of Americans have enjoyed could be permanently tainted just so Cargill, already one of the world's most profitable companies can make even more money, even if it means damaging one of America's most beautiful rivers for everyone else.

The citizens of Arkansas fought industrialists once to Save the Buffalo. And their efforts paid off for forty years. If Arkansas want to enjoy the Buffalo for another forty years, it's time to fight again.

Save the Buffalo.

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To learn more, visit National Parks Conservation Association, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, Arkansas Canoe Club and the Ozark Society.

Tags: Activism | Arkansas | Rivers