As C&H Hog Farms appeals the denial of a new, revised permit in the Buffalo National River watershed, the state approved that swine factory's two lagoons to continue leaking up to 5,000 gallons of untreated waste a day under terms of its expired general permit.
A state-contracted agricultural research team has made a limited stab at trying to measure how much of the toxic stuff could be seeping by digging two catchment trenches below these ponds.
Five thousand gallons represents 10 times the amount of daily leakage recommended by a guidance document known as the "10-State Standard." Because so many leaking gallons are permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough), these lagoons in worst case might already have leaked more than 9 million gallons into the karst that underlies and surrounds the factory at Mount Judea. Imagine what 10 years could offer.
Such enormous seepage is permissable as long as the factory operates on its expired general permit. Although C&H was denied the Regulation 5 "No Discharge" permit, the leaking obviously would have continued regardless.
These facts should give every Arkansan who loves this river serious concerns, particularly as I'm told our Legislature this week is set to introduce a controversial bill in special session favorable to C&H while politically diminishing the Department of Environmental Quality's role.
More fact: Scientific study and drilling have shown subsurface fractures and large voids exist around the lagoons and suggest the bottoms of the lagoons lie within feet of "perched groundwater tables." This sustained release of untreated waste does not include the waste drawn from those ponds and sprayed across fields along or near Big Creek, a major Buffalo tributary.
Between the spray fields and permissable lagoon leakage I can't imagine how much waste after five years likely already has collected in the cracks, caves and underground springs below and around this misplaced factory.
It all follows the paths of least resistance to head downhill eventually into the Buffalo six miles away, hydrologists and geologists have predicted. Some call this mess a "creeping catastrophe," since it would take untold years for rainfalls to flush away.
Dr. John Van Brahana, a respected geoscientist and national expert in karst hydrology, said subterranean dye tests his team of volunteers has performed since 2013 around the C&H property (he's not allowed on theirs) found dye moving rapidly, even beneath mountains, and turning up downstream in the Buffalo 12 miles away.
This is science and fact rather than political blather, special-interest spin or rabid "environmentalism."
A board member for the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance explains our state's lenient leakage policy this way: "Arkansas lacks a numerical standard regarding pond manure leakage. So the rules defaulted to what the National Resources Conservation Service and its Agricultural Waste Management Field handbook recommends. That default is a daily maximum of 5,000 gallons per acre. In contrast, the widely used guidance document known as the 10-State Standard, regularly referred to as a guide for establishing leakage restrictions for sewage, provides a recommended safe standard of just 500 gallons each day.
"That Arkansas defaults to an allowance 10 times the leakage of that standard is excessive under any circumstances. To steadily allow as much as 5,000 gallons in a geologically sensitive karst environment such as our country's first national river is nothing less than irresponsible."
I call it beyond reckless, especially when the Department of Environmental Quality never insisted upon one analysis from its staff geologists of this porous location before quickly and quietly issuing the general permit in 2012. A retired geologist from that agency rightly referred to that critical omission as "malfeasance."
C&H's lagoon 1 is listed at 0.4788 acres. Number 2 is 0.7865, for a total of 1.27 pond acres. Five thousand gallons of daily leakage per acre would mean the uppermost limit allowed by default is actually 6,300 gallons.
The alliance board member said an engineer's calculations determined both ponds leak at a rate of 4,847 gallons daily. But who knows for sure?
M.D. Smolen, a proven expert in water quality studies, put it this way in a report dated August 2015: "The ADEQ permit provides minimal protection from storage pond leakage ... through the clay liner," which he said was designed based on only one compaction analysis and no permeability testing of final liner construction.
"The high shrink-swell potential of the liner materials have a tendency to crack when allowed to dry, increasing the potential for leakage during the cycle of filling and emptying the ponds," he continued. "An EPA inspection conducted April 15-17, 2014, found that the upper edge of the clay liner [was] protected by erosion control fabric, but did not indicate any effort to prevent liner cracking."
To my knowledge, other than self-reporting and those dual trenches, the amount of waste seeping from the C&H lagoons remains routinely unchecked. That's beyond unacceptable.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 03/13/2018