The Arkansas House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee approved with no dissent Tuesday morning a bill that would ensure limitations to what the public can comment on regarding hog farm permits that have already been issued.
The committee approved by a voice vote House Bill 1007, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, which states that hog farms in good standing that apply for a permit modification cannot have anything more than the modification commented on. Specifically, the location of the permit would not be up for comment.
Wardlaw said the bill only puts in writing what the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality already does. It would not affect C&H Hog Farms, which was recently denied a new operating permit near the Buffalo River.
Opponents of C&H Hog Farms expressed concern that the bill would affect the farm, which abuts a Buffalo River tributary in Newton County and is the only federally classified medium or large hog farm in the area. Opponents of the farm fear the farm’s presence is an environmental risk to the river.
"I will not address the 800-pound hog in the room," Gordon Watkins, the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said as he opened his testimony against the bill. His fear, he said, was that the bill could cut off his group's current effort to close the farm over fears of manure runoff.
"If there is some effort to protect C&H, we will come back to hold them accountable," he said after the bill passed unanimously on a voice vote.
The bill applies to liquid animal waste system permits, which are typically hog farms. Poultry farms don’t need permits, and cattle farms only need them when they are confined, which they typically aren’t.
Under Wardlaw's bill, if a permit-holder seeks only to modify a permit, the entire case isn't reopened.
"We're not taking away any public comment period on the front end," Wardlaw told the panel.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who put the issue on the legislators' agenda when he announced the special session Monday, said he believed the bill had appropriate limits.
"C&H Farm had a federal permit. What happened was a lot of the farmers in the community got concerned that, 'Well, if C&H Hog Farm is going to be denied continuation of their permit, then somehow it's going to impact my right to farm,'" Hutchinson said Tuesday. "This legislation ... reduces their fear that somehow they're not going to be able to continue in operation."
Read Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.