Our Buffalo National River is finally awakening from her long nightmare thanks to the efforts of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who announced the other day the state and owners of the controversial C&H Hog Farms reached an agreement to close that factory at Mount Judea come November.
In the deal, C&H receives $6.2 million, paid for by the state and The Nature Conservancy. There really was no other fair way to resolve this legally complex situation that should never have occurred.
Screaming "Alleluia" at the top of my lungs seems inadequate after six years of "breathlessly" writing about the travesty. Many good people, from those at the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance to the Arkansas Canoe Club, the Ozark Society, the Audubon Society and beyond have given their time, energy and resources in hopes this day might arrive.
It's always risky when a columnist names names. Yet I feel compelled to cite some among the many people who have fought the good fight over the years since our state's Department of Environmental Quality (cough) wrongheadedly issued the permit for C&H to begin spreading millions of tons of raw waste across the fragile watershed.
My thanks to all who contributed so much, including Gordon Watkins; Dr. John Van Brahana and his volunteers; Joe Nix; Richard Mays; Bob Cross, Sam Perroni; Teresa Turk; Brian Thompson; Duane Woltjen; Steve Blumreich; Jack Stewart; Marti Olesen; Ginny Masullo; Ellen Corley; Chuck and Carol Bitting; Lin Wellford; Nancy Haller (deceased); Alice Andrews; David Peterson; Emily Jones; Bob Evans; Debbie Doss; Jewell, Larry and Pam Fowler; Patti Kent; Dane Schumacher and Tom Aley.
Many also thank Governor Hutchinson for bringing this environmental nightmare to an end. Again, apologies to anyone missing from this list along with the 20,000-plus Arkansans who wrote the state in support of our river.
The Newton County families that operated C&H always have been honorable, hardworking people who applied for--and were granted--a legitimate state permit to legally operate the factory with 6,500 swine and to regularly leak and spray the resulting waste across some 600 watershed acres. Those spray fields are dotted around and along impaired Big Creek, a major tributary of the now endangered and impaired national river flowing 6.6 miles downstream.
The Henson and Campbell families did everything the state asked of them without violations.
The problem always has rested solely with the Department of Environmental Quality's ineffective environmental "watchdogs" who failed to insist on crucial studies before considering such a permit in this clearly inappropriate watershed. Good grief, even I know this leaky limestone region was never a place for something as polluting as a large hog factory.
Certain agency employees quietly ushered C&H's general permit through the process without their agency's director ever knowing it was a done deal. Does that abysmal method of doing public business smell beyond rancid to anyone else?
There were valid reasons former Gov. Mike Beebe, in an interview as he exited office, called this permit approval on his watch his biggest regret. As of last week, the legacy of Asa Hutchinson will be as the governor who closed this place and moved toward permanently closing this precious region in "God's Country" to future farm factories.
I'm proud of Hutchinson for keeping his word to me one evening as he campaigned for his first term that he would do everything in his power to protect the Buffalo National River.
It's also my understanding the governor personally researched the history and complexities of this matter before arriving at his conclusion to offer the buyout. He genuinely cared about figuring out how best to untangle such a hog-tied mess for the best possible result.
Those who have followed the C&H debacle since 2012 when the permit was issued already know all that has happened since. I'm speaking, for instance, of the excessive phosphorus levels on spray fields repeatedly draining into Big Creek and deep beneath the fractured karst subsurface, especially during major rain events. That so-called legacy phosphorus will continue to drain downstream for decades to come.
I lost track a couple of years back how many details and developments I've tried to pack into 100 or so columns since 2013 (thanks for the many kind messages). I remained vigilant for one reason only: to do the best I could to keep Arkansans informed of what was happening to our jewel of a stream that a USA Today poll two years ago voted as our state's greatest natural attraction.
People now want to know who will pay for the extensive site cleanup. Will that remediation come from the $6.2 million buyout or additional taxpayer funds?
It will be six months until a defunct C&H joins the annals of Arkansas history. However, the residual effects of the factory's six-year existence will be with us each time we experience major rain events that seep into the phosphorus-soaked karst caverns and springs that feed our majestic Buffalo.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 06/18/2019
Print Headline: Saving the Buffalo