Vaporized pig waste leaving some unease

Farm’s plan short on data, state says

A Mount Judea hog farm's new contract with a Florida company for an untested hog waste disposal method has environmentalists worried about the potential effect on the surrounding area, even as the farm and the company insist that the new method should ease fears of pollution.

Sometime early next year, Plasma Energy Group of Port Richey, Fla., will test a machine designed to vaporize hog waste on the C&H Hog Farms site, founder and Plasma Energy President Murry Vance said. If everything goes as planned, the technology will eliminate the need for the pools of hog waste currently at the facility, he said.

The farm sits on Big Creek about 6 miles from where the creek meets the Buffalo National River. Numerous studies are being conducted to determine the effect the hog farm has had on nearby waters since it first opened more than a year ago, but C&H and environmentalists have disagreed on what the results of the studies indicate.

The vaporizing method has not been approved or rejected by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, which has informed the company that it doesn't have enough data -- given that the method has not been tested before on hog waste -- to determine whether the company will need an air-quality permit to proceed.

In an Oct. 7 email to Vance, the department recommended that the company test its method off-site and provide the agency with data once the testing begins.

"Please be aware that if you choose to proceed with the trial on the C&H premises, you do so strictly and entirely at your own risk and expense," Air Division Permit Branch Manager Thomas Rheaume wrote. "If it is later determined that an air permit is needed, your company could potentially be subject to an enforcement action. This response in no way authorizes operations that would otherwise require an air permit."

Because of the size of the machine to be used, Vance said he's not concerned about facing enforcement action. He said the emissions will be less than those of a commercial lawn mower.

"There's not going to be an issue with air, and they know that," Vance said.

He told the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in October that he believed on-site testing was the best way to try out the technology.

The company sent C&H information about its technology after learning about the farm in the news. C&H co-owner Jason Henson then called the company and noted his interest.

Vance and Plasma Energy Group have been looking to expand into agriculture, and Henson and C&H have been looking for a way to address the criticism that the farm has incurred for nearly two years.

Plasma Energy Group submitted an air-permit application to the Environmental Quality Department on Sept. 18.

"It's more a call to appease the environmentalists than anything," Henson said.

But environmentalists, chiefly concerned that a large animal operation is located so close to the Buffalo National River, have gone to the Environmental Quality Department and its appellate body -- the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission -- to express their concern that the technology is "experimental" and risky.

"I liken it to putting lipstick on a pig, if you want to excuse the pun," said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.

The proposed technology is an attempt to correct something that never should have been there in the first place, he said.

"It's an unproven technology, and there's a lot more questions than answers," Watkins said.

While Vance has said the vaporizing method is a "closed-loop" system with no discharge, Watkins and others have been skeptical. Vance said the skepticism is a misreading of the company's proposal.

Plasma Energy Group has never previously attempted to vaporize hog waste, but Vance notes that the company has previously vaporized human waste and a combination of animal manure and bedding.

The company started in 2013, but Vance said he has been using plasma arc pyrolysis technology -- typically the conversion of material into synthetic gas -- since 1992. In the case of C&H, Vance said the waste won't be turned into synthetic gas because the quantity of material won't be large enough.

The method proposed for the C&H farm would break down the hog waste and vaporize it using electron discharge and some heat, then condenses the water vapor into "semi-pure" water that's put back in the plant, Vance said.

"It doesn't leave the property," he said.

C&H Hog Farms is a "large concentrated animal feeding operation" permitted to have about 2,000 full-grown sows and as many as 4,000 piglets at a time.

The farm, granted a permit from the Environmental Quality Department in 2012, has operated for about a year and a half while it and the agencies that granted its operational permits have been under fire from environmentalists who say the amount of animal waste generated at the facility could pose a threat to groundwater and the nearby river.

The Buffalo National River had more than 1 million visitors in 2013, who spent about $46 million, according to National Park Service data.

In 2013, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and other environmental organizations filed a lawsuit alleging that loans guaranteed to the hog farm were given after an improper environmental assessment on the impact of the farm that violated several federal laws.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. has determined that he will issue an injunction -- or a block -- on those loans, but the details of the injunction and a timeline for when federal agencies will be required to comply with federal law have yet to be determined.

Metro on 11/16/2014

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