In the struggle to salvage what relative purity remains of our precious Buffalo National River, legal depositions from last year raise pertinent questions about the nutrient management plan C&H Hog Farms submitted to gain its original Regulation 6 General Permit from our state's Department of Environmental Quality (cough).
For me, such revelations help explain why large amounts of phosphorus have accumulated around that facility since the permit was wrongheadedly issued in 2012. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water, fertilizers generated by animal waste, cause algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle and result in danger to aquatic life from low dissolved oxygen and explosions of algae blooms.
May 2018 depositions reveal that the levels of phosphorus-laden liquid waste being spread from manure and urine lagoons across fields along and near Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo, today far exceed the projected levels claimed in the factory's original nutrient management plan (NMP).
In her deposition, Monica Hancock, a land resource specialist with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, explained that the original C&H permit (defunct many months ago but still used by extension as a reason to continue to operate as usual) was based on an erroneous phosphorus storage loss factor. That has allowed waste to be spread for years which far exceeds normal levels. Hancock expressed concerns about those figures and resulting phosphorus overload.
The Arkansas Phosphorus Index (API) was developed to require nutrient management plans to reveal how much animal waste containing phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen can be safely applied to fields, all based on a variety of factors, including time of year, space and terrain.
This index also allows for storage losses for waste that isn't applied to the fields. Normally, zero storage loss is allowed for phosphorus waste. According to Hancock's deposition, the factory's NMP cited a storage loss factor of 80 percent for phosphorus generated at the factory. In essence, that meant 80 percent of the phosphorus waste in its lagoons would not be sprayed on fields, but somehow go away.
The consulting engineering firm hired by C&H to design its barns, waste lagoons and related systems was DeHaan, Grabs & Associates (DGA) of North Dakota. In her deposition Hancock identified Nathan Pesta and his employer DGA as responsible for preparing the factory's NMP.
So why was an 80 percent phosphorus storage loss ever allowed to be used in C&H's original permit without evidence? Perhaps because the original NMP relied upon most of the contaminant being trucked away.
That pig-in-a-poke idea clearly was determined not to be financially feasible, which logically would mean 100 percent of the phosphorus has remained on site. This obviously would result in much more phosphorous-laden waste sprayed on fields or leaking from waste lagoons over six years into the Big Creek and Buffalo River watersheds than what the Department of Environmental Quality approved under the factory's original permit.
C&H's 2018 annual report to the agency shows about 2.5 million gallons of untreated liquid waste was sprayed on about 570 acres of pastureland in the Big Creek and Buffalo River watersheds. This amounts to some 4,300 gallons an acre, with untold amounts of pollutants seeping through prevailing karst subsurface into groundwater, private wells, the tributary Big Creek, and ultimately our Buffalo. A lot of those pollutants (such as phosphorus) may be tied up in the soil and crevasses and steadily released for decades. Sadly, the Department of Environmental Quality last year classified sections of Big Creek and our precious Buffalo as now being impaired.
Such critical misinformation in the C&H nutrient plan raises many questions for me: Whose idea was it to originally claim 80 percent of the phosphorous-laden waste would be removed? On what scientific and economic data did Pesta base that conclusion? Was it deemed necessary to include such a storage loss figure to make the factory seem environmentally feasible? Would the state have rejected the permit had the actual phosphorous loss factor been submitted?
Gordon Watkins, who heads the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, told me Pesta also was mistaken in his yield estimate of 6.5 tons of hay per watershed acre. "That might work in South Dakota, but it's a way unrealistically high yield for the Ozarks. That figure in part determines how much waste can be applied," he said, adding that an over-estimate of yield invariably results in an over-application of waste. "He [Pesta] also says it requires 56 pounds per acre of phosphorus to produce that 6.5 tons of hay. The most recent soil tests show levels of 130 to 330 pounds an acre, but they continue to apply more."
We know DGA and Nathan Pesta signed the NMP and were the consulting engineers hired to design the farm. Others including C&H's owners, Cargill, Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Pork Producers and the Department of Environmental Quality also were involved in securing initial approval.
With so many knowledgeable individuals involved, shouldn't someone have asked upfront if it was even feasible to eliminate 80 percent of the phosphorus waste and what happens if it can't be removed? That also would mean the state issued the factory's permit based on an initial material misstatement of critical information, wouldn't it? Pesta didn't respond to two emails sent to DGA asking how he arrived at his NMP calculations.
Financing for C&H was obtained through taxpayer-backed Small Business Administration and Farm Service Agency guaranteed loans. This also leaves me wondering if the permit issued based on one or more material misstatements on the NMP was used to obtain that financing.
Finally, if the permit was based on one or more erroneous points, wouldn't that be grounds for immediate closure? Under such circumstances, should the federally secured financing used to create the farm rightfully be withdrawn since taxpayers are on the hook?
I'm still hoping Pesta and others will fully detail how he arrived at the conclusion that so much of the factory's phosphorus would somehow disappear, as well as addressing Watkins' serious concerns.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web only on 02/16/2019
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