C&H Hog Farms, the subject of yearslong environmental concerns, will close its doors later this year under a $6.2 million buyout agreement reached with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Department of Arkansas Heritage Director Stacy Hurst.
The large-scale hog farm that sits within the watershed of the Buffalo National River has 180 days from Thursday to cease operations. After that, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality will begin closing the site, including the hog manure ponds and any cleanup that may be necessary.
The land will be given to the state as a conservation easement, which will limit its future usage.
Shortly after signing the agreement Thursday morning, Hutchinson announced the news at the Arkansas Municipal League's luncheon, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech.
The announcement drew applause across the Statehouse Convention Center's ballroom in downtown Little Rock.
"Let me emphasize that the farmers -- Jason Henson, Richard Campbell and Philip Campbell -- obtained the permit fairly and have operated the hog farm with the utmost care from the beginning," Hutchinson said. "They have not done anything wrong, but the state should never have granted that permit for a large-scale hog farm operation in the Buffalo River watershed."
The Department of Arkansas Heritage has a statutory responsibility "to protect the rivers and streams of Arkansas," Hurst said in a statement sent to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The agreement "will ensure that this national treasure receives the protection that it deserves," the statement reads.
C&H Hog Farms has been in operation since 2013 and has faced push-back ever since from environmental groups concerned about hog manure ending up in the Buffalo River, the first river in the United States to be designated as a national river. The facility is located on Big Creek, 6.6 miles from where it flows into the Buffalo.
The creek and river are on the department's proposed list of impaired water bodies for E. coli, but no government agency has concluded C&H is responsible for the bacteria's presence.
The state, with help from The Nature Conservancy, will pay the farmers $6.2 million in exchange for the closure. Most of that will be public money.
Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the amounts haven't been finalized because the governor is waiting to hear from The Nature Conservancy about how much it will raise. The Department of Arkansas Heritage may provide funds, and the rest of the state's money would come from Hutchinson's discretionary fund.
Hutchinson said The Nature Conservancy will not pay more than $1 million toward the buyout and will likely pay closer to $600,000 or so.
Per the agreement, the compensation will cover the remaining balance on a multimillion-dollar loan and compensate the farmers for additional costs related to the closure, such as losses from cutting their contract with JBS Pork short and the remaining life of equipment purchased for the farm's operation.
"We would like to thank all of those who have supported us through these difficult times defending our right to farm," Jason Henson wrote in a statement sent via text message to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We also thank the Governor, whose leadership has been instrumental. The time has come to resolve this matter and the terms of this agreement, financial settlement, and grant of a conservation easement present a good solution for everyone."
Hutchinson also said a temporary ban on new medium- and large-scale hog farms in the watershed should be made permanent. He has directed Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh to start the rule-making process to make the language permanent.
The department ordered the facility, which houses to up to 6,503 hogs, to close in November, citing water quality concerns and insufficient geological investigations of the rough karst terrain in which the farm sits.
C&H subsequently filed a number of appeals of the department's actions and of subsequent actions taken by the department's appellate body, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology.
"This has been the source of constant controversy and litigation since the beginning," Hutchinson said. "It has always been my highest priority to protect the Buffalo River and ensure it as a national treasure far into the future."
The cost and expected duration of all filed and anticipated appeals was not ideal, the governor said.
"That's not a good outcome, and that doesn't protect the river," which made the buyout the state's best option, Hutchinson said after his speech.
Hutchinson initially offered the farmers less than $6.2 million. When the farmers said they needed more to cover their losses, he called Scott Simon of The Nature Conservancy.
Simon reached out to businessmen and donors to gauge their interest in supporting the buyout, The Nature Conservancy spokesman Ginny Porter said. He got a positive response, giving the governor the money needed to pay the farmers.
Simon was traveling Thursday but issued a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette thanking Hutchinson and the Henson and Campbell families "for working with the State of Arkansas on a solution to a challenging situation."
Rumors of a buyout have circulated since early 2018, said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. The alliance formed in 2013 to oppose C&H, and members have been active in pursuing legal means to shut down the facility and researching any effects it has on Big Creek and the Buffalo.
Still, Watkins said, he wasn't expecting an announcement so soon.
"We're extremely pleased that this has finally come to pass," he said. "We've been at this for six years. We were told at numerous occasions that we were tilting at windmills."
Watkins supports the buyout and has previously stated his support for compensation for the farmers, should C&H be forced to close, because they obtained their permit legally.
Watkins said he hopes that monitoring of the water quality in Big Creek and the nearest portions of the Buffalo continues, citing the potential for phosphorus buildup in the soil at C&H to release over time via rainwater runoff.
On Friday, the alliance and the Arkansas Canoe Club filed a notice of intent to sue C&H in federal court for purported violations of the federal Clean Water Act, including seepage from manure ponds and the spread of hog manure as fertilizer on land in a flood plain.
The notice states that the alliance would give C&H 60 days to address the alleged violations or it would sue.
Watkins said he hadn't spoken to his attorney, Richard Mays, as of early Thursday afternoon but said that closure of the facility may qualify as addressing the alliance's claims.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau released a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in support of C&H.
"This is a private, and personal, decision by the owners of C&H Hog Farm, which, no doubt, was based on what they felt is best for their future," reads the statement, sent by spokesman Steve Eddington. "Arkansas Farm Bureau's support for the owners of C&H has not wavered, and we wish them success in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue.
"You cannot tell this story without emphasizing that C&H had no environmental violations during more than five years of operation. That critical point has sometimes been lost. This farm underwent exhaustive testing and evaluation, both by ADEQ and EPA, and there has been no credible scientific evidence that this farm caused harm to the Buffalo River. That fact cannot be overlooked."
C&H was "one of the most productive swine producers in the region," according to the Farm Bureau.
Several groups and individuals released statements Thursday in support of the buyout.
"In my view, the initial approval of this large-scale operation near the sensitive Buffalo River watershed was ill-conceived," U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said in a statement. "It's my hope that all stakeholders have learned from this extended challenge. I look forward to collaborating with local residents, farmers, as well as state and federal conservation officials, in creating a healthy watershed environment. Protecting the pristine Buffalo River is essential to preserving the livelihoods of countless Arkansans in north central Arkansas."
Everyone will benefit from the agreement, Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray said in a statement.
"While it is unfortunate that these farmers were ever put in this position, I am happy that Governor Hutchinson has followed a suggestion made by me and many other advocates to make these farmers whole and to preserve our national treasure," Gray said in the statement.
A Section on 06/14/2019