The responsible party for issuing hog farm permits would change under a bill that cleared an Arkansas Senate committee Thursday.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality would no longer have the authority to issue -- or deny -- hog farm permits under Senate Bill 550, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
Also, farmers would have the option to close the public notice portion of the typical permitting process. Public notice and comment are required under current law, but the bill would allow applicants to "waive" those requirements.
The bill, which cleared the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee without opposition and with not all members present, now heads to the full Senate.
The bill would affect only new permit applications after Jan. 1, 2021, and current permits would transfer on or before then.
In discussing the bill, Stubblefield said it was not about C&H Hog Farms in Newton County, whose new permit application was denied last year by the Department of Environmental Quality.
Stubblefield said the change is necessary because people who have both a poultry farm and a hog farm have to get their nutrient management plans approved at different state agencies.
The bill would make hog farm permitting the responsibility of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, which would issue de facto permits for hog farms if it approved of the farms' nutrient management plans.
"It's a bill that deals a lot with efficiency," Stubblefield told the committee.
Several people spoke against the bill Thursday, concerned that it would curtail the rules that applicants currently must follow when they seek permits. It would effectively eliminate the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's Regulation 5, which concerns liquid animal waste management systems.
That regulation specifies the use of the Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook as guidance when crafting applications. References in the handbook led department regulators to deny C&H Farms' application last year.
Department of Environmental Quality officials told the committee Thursday that they are concerned that the change would dilute state rules regarding large concentrated animal feeding operations and make them less stringent than federal rules.
State rules must be as stringent or more so, department Chief of Staff Mitch Rouse said. Changing the permitting system could raise concern in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which could revoke the state's ability to issue the permits, he said. Further, federal law requires an appeal process for permits, which the bill does not provide for, he said.
"I think one of our concerns is that we do have a robust administrative process to protect the permits that we issue and allow for everyone to participate in the process," department attorney Basil Hicks said. The bill would diminish that process, he said.
The bill allows applicants to appeal disapproved nutrient management plans to the commission's director.
John Bailey, a former department water division employee and current environmental and regulatory affairs manager for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, disagreed with that. Regulation 5 is a state permitting program, he said, and the EPA would be concerned only with the state's implementation of federal permits.
"I disagree with ADEQ that EPA would even blink an eye at Reg. 5," Bailey said. The Farm Bureau supports the bill, and Bailey said Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office did not oppose the bill.
EPA officials did not answer questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about whether the EPA reviews Regulation 5 changes or permits.
After the meeting, state department officials told the newspaper that the EPA is concerned with department regulations and actions as far as they pertain to upholding federal Clean Water Act requirements.
"EPA reviews ADEQ's state programs to ensure that they meet the minimum standards outlined in federal law," a spokesman said in an email. "If state regulations do not implement appropriate standards that comply with the Clean Water Act and other federal laws, then that would subject the entities under those regulations to review by EPA."
The nutrient management plan is only one aspect of the department's Regulation 5 permitting process, the department stated.
Leaders with the Natural Resources Commission were not available Thursday for comment.
No commission officials appeared to be at Thursday's meeting.
The commission currently has no official role in hog farm permitting but reviews poultry litter management plans.
Poultry farms do not require permits.
Poultry litter is often used to fertilize crops. It is waste that is combined with dry elements, such as hay, to reduce its liquidity and make it more transportable.
Hog manure, also often used as crop fertilizer, is nearly always kept in its liquid form.
Critics questioned whether the commission staff has the expertise that the Environmental Quality Department staff has in assessing permit applications, but senators argued that the commission staff has access to experts and the people who wrote the handbook.
"There's a good reason that liquid animal waste systems have been singled out for more scrutiny than dry litter," said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, which was formed to oppose C&H Hog Farms' operation in the river's watershed.
Nutrient management plans outline how farms handle the waste produced by their animals and take into account the nitrogen and phosphorus contained in the waste. Excessive phosphorus in water can degrade water quality, cause algae to grow and requires years to reduce to healthy levels.
C&H Hog Farms opponents have complained that the state's current Phosphorus Index that limits the amount of waste that can be applied to land is not sufficient for protection of water quality in sometimes porous terrain.
Rainwater runoff from land on which poultry litter was applied is frequently blamed for causing high phosphorus levels in the Illinois River and its tributaries.
Oklahoma sued poultry producers in Northwest Arkansas over river pollution, and the amount of poultry litter spread on land in that region has been reduced. After months of testimony more than 10 years ago, a judge still has not ruled in that lawsuit.
Most farmers are good stewards of their land, Stubblefield said.
One person speaking against the bill noted the consolidation of dairy farms into large operations,and Stubblefield said regulations over the years have reduced Arkansas' dairy operations. Stubblefield used to be a dairy farmer.
He took issue with "some of these college boys that sit in a windowless basement and they draw up rules and regulations and they've never been on a dairy farm ... they put us out of business, but they still have a job."
Metro on 03/15/2019
Print Headline: Bill would transfer Arkansas hog farms' oversight