Opponents of a Newton County hog farm near the Buffalo River have asked the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to shut down the farm near Mount Judea in light of new data, but researchers caution that the data are inconclusive.
Several organizations opposed to C&H Hog Farms recently spoke before the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission regarding research conducted by an Oklahoma State University team on behalf of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team.
The Big Creek team, created to research C&H Hog Farms' impact on its surrounding environment, is funded with Arkansas rainy-day funds and operates out of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The team has operated for three years, and researchers hope it will continue for at least another two.
Research conducted last spring and made available this spring measured electroresistivity of the ground beneath three plots of land on karst terrain near the Buffalo National River. Electroresistivity imaging indicates to researchers how dry or wet the ground below the surface is. Ground that is resistant to electricity is dry. Electricity-conductive ground is wet.
The three plots were all different. One was where C&H had recently spread hog manure on the soil. Another was where C&H had applied manure less recently, and the third was where no manure had been spread.
Electroresistivity was found to be h̶i̶g̶h̶e̶r̶ lower* where manure had been applied.
The results prompted opponents of the hog farm to tell the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission that the river was potentially in danger of pollution from the farm, and they requested that the farm be shut down until further research can be conducted.
*Opponents of C&H Hog Farms are primarily concerned about electroresistivity being low underneath the ponds that hold hog manure and not the fields where hog manure is applied at the facility.
Numerous people, including former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune, R-Ark., told commissioners of their dismay about the test results. Bethune has opposed the department's permitting of C&H's operation, which is in the Big Creek area about 6 miles from where the creek meets the Buffalo National River.
"If I were a member of this commission, if I were the director of ADEQ, I would be outraged that I did not know about the findings of Oklahoma State University at this site a year ago," Bethune said.
The Buffalo National River -- the country's first national river -- is a popular tourist spot, with more than 1.3 million visitors in 2014 who spent about $56.5 million at area businesses, according to National Park Service data.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is looking into the information presented at the meeting, chief technical officer Bob Blanz said.
"We're certainly interested in it because it can mean a number of different things, and we just need to find out what that is," Blanz said.
Department officials have spoken with the Big Creek team leader and University of Arkansas at Fayetteville environmental sciences professor Andrew Sharpley but had not spoken to any Oklahoma State University researchers as of Thursday morning.
Researchers have speculated among themselves about what caused the test results. They all agree that no cause can be determined on the basis of only one test.
Todd Halihan, the researcher from Oklahoma State University, where he is a professor of hydrogeophysics and hydrogeology of fractured and karstic aquifers, said the results could be because hog manure itself is conductive, or because microbes could be growing below the ground surface.
Halihan said he is inclined to believe the microbes explanation, but he has no samples of microbes to determine whether they are good or bad. Additional testing could detect that, he said.
The test results weren't distressing, Halihan said. While they detected the presence of manure on the ground surface, they did not show that anything alarming was occurring.
"There wasn't a huge amount [of manure] applied," he said. "We're not looking at a site with a big spill or a massive application over time."
He added that the amount of manure C&H had been applying as fertilizer to the land was "reasonable."
Researchers with the Big Creek Research and Extension Team had a different theory about the test results. They said clay in the upper layers of the ground beneath the hog manure is naturally more conductive.
Halihan disagreed, arguing that clay alone couldn't explain the test results.
But Big Creek team researchers -- including Sharpley; University of Arkansas at Fayetteville associate professor of geosciences Phil Hays; and UA System Division of Agriculture professor and extension engineer Karl VanDevender -- said they are confident that their theory is correct because no other testing done in the area has indicated pollution.
The research team regularly collects samples near the C&H farm, including from a 200-foot trench on the property. The researchers said none of their samples from the trench have caused them concern.
"If there was some leakage, we would pick it up in direct measurements," Sharpley said. "We do not see -- we're looking -- but we do not see anything [that shows that]."
In additional research done near a manure pond some distance from the three test sites, Halihan detected -- through electroresistivity imaging -- in one place conductivity seemed higher than expected given the geology of the land, indicating a potential ground fracture where manure could seep through.
Researchers could address that in two ways, he said. They could drill to see if a fracture exists or they could line the ponds with a protective liner instead of relying on its packed-clay bottoms and sides to prevent seepage.
The department has approved C&H for installing liners, but the farm would have to empty the ponds to install them, Blanz said.
To help with that, officials at EC Farms in Newton County have applied for a permit to increase the amount of hog manure allowed on its land. C&H could then transfer the manure from its ponds to EC Farms, and then install the liners in the empty ponds, Blanz said. That permit hasn't been approved.
As for drilling, the price of doing that would depend on the contractor and the type of sampling done, Halihan said, adding that a ballpark estimate would be $10,000.
The Big Creek research team doesn't plan to drill because it is confident in its test results and in those results being similar elsewhere in the area, said Rick Cartwright, professor and extension associate director for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Division of Agriculture.
Big Creek researchers said electroresistivity imaging is useful technology, but it must be paired with additional research for accurate analysis. Current additional research doesn't indicate that the manure ponds are leaking, they said.
"We have five different types of direct measurement going on," Cartwright said. "None of them indicate leakage, contamination, movement. The large body of evidence doesn't really support drilling or additional probing at this time."
Buffalo River Watershed Alliance board member Dane Schumacher said a few thousands dollars for drilling isn't much compared with the hundreds of thousands already invested in research.
"It's not clear," she said. "It's their interpretation, and I think drilling needs to be done" to determine whether the moisture in the ground is because the soil is clay or because there's presence of hog waste.
She said taxpayers funding the Big Creek team would want a more thorough examination, especially because the experts disagree with one another.
"Why wouldn't you want to drill to confirm?" she said.
Metro on 05/15/2016
*CORRECTION: Electroresistivity was lower on the fields where hog manure was applied at C&H Hog Farms in Newton County. This story incorrectly summarized the results of testing on the fields.
Electroresistivity imaging indicates how dry or wet the ground below the surface is. Ground that is resistant to electricity is dry. Electricity-conductive ground is wet. Opponents of C&H Hog Farms are primarily concerned about electroresistivity being low underneath the ponds that hold hog manure and not the fields where hog manure is applied at the facility.