A study conducted at C&H Hog Farms found no evidence of a hog manure leak at the farm 6 miles from the Buffalo River, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality concluded this week.
State-hired contractors conducted research Sept. 21-26 at C&H. The research involved drilling 120.5 feet into the ground and taking several soil, water and soil leachate samples at different levels, then comparing the results with samples taken in other parts of Newton County and with U.S. Geological Survey data taken in 2004.
The department hired Harbor Environmental of Little Rock to conduct the drilling at C&H to detect whether one of the manure ponds had been leaking. The drilling project came about after the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance raised concerns about electrical resistivity imaging research done at C&H Hog Farms in early 2015, which the group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request early this year.
In the review released this week, the department noted that research had suggested some fractures in the ground but concluded that the suspected leak from the electrical resistivity research was groundwater in a porous zone in the ground.
"There was no evidence of a release from the storage ponds," the one-page review reads.
The Big Creek Research and Extension Team, hired by the state to do a five-year study of C&H's impact on the Buffalo River, had declined to conduct drilling. It argued there had been no evidence of a leak in other testing and suspected that the higher-than-expected moisture levels detected in the ground were likely clay.
Jason Henson, co-owner of C&H Hog Farms, did not return a voice mail left for him Friday. He said last year that he was confident the drilling research would not find any pollution.
Henson, a ninth-generation Mount Judea resident, said he trusted the research that had already been conducted by the Big Creek Research and Extension Team, which has not yet drawn any conclusions about pollution at C&H.
In the review released this week, the department noted that its team consulted with Harbor staff on technical questions not answered in Harbor's December report.
Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said his group's opinion on the research hadn't changed since it was presented to them in December. His group had pushed for drilling three different holes at C&H instead of just the one the state contractors drilled.
Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Kelly Robinson emailed an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Friday afternoon explaining that the reason for only one hole had been addressed in a document released Dec. 1, and was based on recommendations received from some experts.* b̶u̶t̶ ̶a̶ ̶r̶e̶p̶o̶r̶t̶e̶r̶'̶s̶ ̶r̶e̶q̶u̶e̶s̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶d̶o̶c̶u̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶w̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶u̶n̶a̶n̶s̶w̶e̶r̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶s̶u̶c̶h̶ ̶a̶ ̶d̶o̶c̶u̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶n̶'̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶e̶p̶a̶r̶t̶m̶e̶n̶t̶'̶s̶ ̶w̶e̶b̶s̶i̶t̶e̶.̶
Watkins said he also was skeptical about the water test results for E. coli, because contractors used chlorine-treated water from Eastern Newton County Water Association to lubricate the drilling process. Chlorine kills E. coli.
In its review, the department noted that its water samples had been dechlorinated "and the validity of bacteriological samples was not compromised." The review does not note at what point the samples are gathered and dechlorinated, and an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette question to clarify that went unanswered Friday.
Watkins said his group doesn't plan to fight the study's results but plans to submit public comments on C&H's application for a new permit, which has not gone through department review yet.
"We've already made our concerns about the drilling report known," he said.
The department released Harbor's results Dec. 2 but had asked researchers not to draw conclusions from their results. Instead, department officials decided to review the research internally and release their findings at a later date.
The department did not take questions from the public at the event announcing the study's results Dec. 2 but said it would accept questions through noon Dec. 9, and it later extended that deadline to noon Dec. 16.
Department officials said they would answer questions during the review process. Through Dec. 16, the department received 39 sets of questions from 33 people.
Five pages attached to the review were intended to be a general response to questions about how the research was conducted. The review can be found on the department's website at: www.adeq.state.ar.us/water/bbri/c-and-h/drilling.aspx. The review notes a few corrections to make to existing documents.
C&H Hog Farms Inc., near Mount Judea in Newton County, sits on Big Creek about 6 miles from where it converges with the Buffalo National River. It is the only federally classified large hog farm in the river's watershed and is permitted to house up to 6,000 piglets and 2,503 sows.
The Buffalo National River had 1.46 million visitors last year, the third-highest total since it became a national river and the highest since a record count of 1.55 million in 2009.
C&H has been accused of posing a pollution risk to the river because of its federally classified "large" size. State-funded researchers separate from Harbor Environmental continue to monitor the farm to see whether it is affecting the river and have so far released no definite finding.
The department paid Harbor Environmental $75,000 for the project, which involved drilling at C&H and taking samples at certain depths. Harbor hired Cascade Drilling of Memphis to do the drilling, while Harbor and independent geologist Tai Hubbard supervised the work.
Drilling samples were sent to Arkansas Analytical Inc., the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture's Soils Testing and Research Laboratory, and the Ouachita Baptist University laboratory directed by Joe Nix.
The samples were tested for 18 nutrients and minerals, although not every sample was tested for all 18. The results mostly fit the parameters set by the U.S. Geological Survey except where the Geological Survey did not have comparable data, according to Harbor's presentation in December. Soil leachate samples showed higher concentrations of the nutrients and elements below the ponds but still fit Geological Survey parameters when applicable. The Geological Survey did not always have comparable data for nitrogen, phosphorus or total organic carbon. No soil samples detected E. coli, and ammonia was found above Geological Survey levels in one of five water samples.
The drilling samples also gave a picture of the makeup of the ground at C&H. Researchers found what they believed to be mostly clay down to 13.5 feet, limestone and clay from 13.5 feet to 28 feet, and limestone from 28 feet to 120.5 feet. Water loss during drilling suggested fractures in the ground from 25 feet to 38 feet. A drop in neutron counts suggested a porous zone from 100 feet to 120 feet.
Research documents can be found on the department's website.
Metro on 01/21/2017
*CORRECTION: The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality provided a document detailing Frequently Asked Questions on the C&H Hog Farms drilling project to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated such a document had not been provided. The FAQ stated that only one borehole was drilled at the site based on recommendations received from some experts.