Operators of an unpermitted hog farm in the Buffalo River's watershed must clear improperly stored hog manure and develop a plan to manage the manure by March 15, a judge has ordered.
But the farm won't have to shut down or get an operating permit, Boone County Circuit Judge Gail Inman-Campbell ruled this month.
The farm can continue to operate under a dry-litter manure management system, in which hog manure is combined with straw or hay to absorb the manure and create dry bedding that can eventually be used as fertilizer.
Late last year, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality sued Sanders Farm, located just outside Western Grove, for operating without a permit in a watershed that had a moratorium on new hog farms of its size and for letting liquid hog manure leak to a nearby creek.
But permits -- and the regulations and moratoriums that dictate them -- are required for only liquid manure systems, which the department failed to prove Sanders Farm was using, Inman-Campbell ruled.
The department at one time required dry-manure farms to have permits, but the department changed its regulations in 2012 to exempt them, records show.
The department did not respond to a question about whether it would appeal the judge's ruling.
"I thought the judge was fair and reasoned in her judgment and fair with her ruling," said Robert Ginnaven, Sanders Farm's attorney.
The liquid manure escaped from Sanders Farm property, according to testimony, when the farmers were unable to sell their hogs and their operation grew from about 2,400 hogs to about 3,200 -- more than they could handle.
Pat and Starlinda Sanders, who own the farm, said they couldn't sell their pigs because they had been ill. So they let pigs roam from their property to reduce crowding and began storing some dry-litter manure outside, where rain hit it, turned it back to a liquid and it drained off of the property.
Department officials said the manure washed into Cedar Creek, which eventually drains into the Buffalo National River.
Because some waste was liquid and had washed into nearby waterways, the department argued that the farm was using a liquid manure management system and needed a permit.
"The defendants have been forthright about their actions and admitted they created this situation by releasing the hogs and have taken responsibility for their actions acknowledging the grave danger to the environment if allowed to continue," Inman-Campbell wrote in her ruling. "The court believes the defendants' testimony expressing their remorse for this whole debacle."
The farm must stop releasing its hogs from the barns, use its dry-manure disposal system, empty the contents of the dry-manure stacking barns by March 15, revegetate the area between one barn and County Road 50, replace the wood walls of one stacking barn with cinder blocks and write a nutrient-management plan for the manure by March 15, according to the order.
The farmers have begun to revegetate the land with grass and have contacted people who have agreed to collect the manure from the stacking barns and to draft a nutrient-management plan, Ginnaven said.
In 2012, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission voted to remove dry-manure facilities from its Regulation 6 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which cover concentrated animal feeding operations, which Sanders Farm would be.
Regulation 5, under which many hog farms are permitted, is titled "liquid animal waste management systems."
The regulation removal came at the suggestion of the Department of Environmental Quality, under the administration of director Teresa Marks. In 2003, the department, under the administration of Marcus Devine, pushed the commission to pass emergency rules to require permits for dry-manure operations.
In both requests, the department cited changes at the federal level for their need to alter Arkansas' regulations.
In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expanded on the types of farms that needed permits, including medium and large concentrated animal feeding operations.
The EPA later amended its regulations again for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits and made no reference to dry-manure hog operations.
The state Environmental Quality Department's concentrated animal feeding operation regulations have always been more strict than those at the federal level, as evidenced by requiring permits for non-discharge liquid-waste hog farms, said Ryan Benefield, deputy director for the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and a former deputy director for the Environmental Quality Department.
In 2011, after the EPA again changed its regulations, the department decided to remove the dry-manure requirements, which agricultural groups had previously sought.
Benefield said he doesn't know how many dry-manure hog farms are in the state. The commission writes voluntary nutrient management plans for farmers, but he said he's not aware of any that have been written for hog farms that use dry manure.
Because permits aren't required, it's difficult to gauge how many dry-manure hog farms are in Arkansas, said Steve Eddington, an Arkansas Farm Bureau spokesman.
"I am aware that some of the free-range pork producers are utilizing dry manure, but there is no way that I am aware of to pinpoint the number of farms using that practice," Eddington said.
Metro on 02/19/2018