Malvern sawmill set to close for a month as spill probed

White piping could be seen Thursday across a concrete culvert, part of water cleanup efforts at the corner of South Walco Road and Kelly Street in Malvern.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cristina LaRue)
White piping could be seen Thursday across a concrete culvert, part of water cleanup efforts at the corner of South Walco Road and Kelly Street in Malvern. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cristina LaRue)

MALVERN -- Anthony Timberlands Inc. will pause operations of its sawmill in Malvern for one month after an investigation into the discharge of hydraulic fluid into a creek near the facility.

Lumber inventory levels will be "drawn down" at the facility's planar mill before that too will pause operations, according to a news release from company President Steven Anthony on Thursday.

The "temporary closure" will be effective at the close of business today, a company memo to Anthony Timberlands' Malvern employees said. The memo was dated Jan. 3.

The company made the move in response to recent actions "by downstream landowners, facility neighbors and local government officials" that led the company to determine "operating at this time is not in our best interest," the news release said.

State and federal officials are monitoring cleanup of hydraulic fluid in Chatman Creek after an emergency response incident report was filed with the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality on Sept. 12.

Investigators determined it was "hydraulic oil that was released by Anthony Timberlands in Malvern" into Chatman Creek that flows into the Ouachita River, according to a division emergency response incident report filed Sept. 12, 2022.

Anthony has said the chemical discharge in Malvern was not a major release and is not ongoing.

Some Malvern residents are concerned the damage is already done to surrounding wildlife, wetland habitats and area drinking water that is accessible to area livestock.

Residents met Thursday at Greater New Hope Baptist Church at 1202 W. Sullenberger Ave. in Malvern to discuss the issue.

Attending the meeting were officials with the Department of Agriculture Livestock and Poultry Division, including Livestock and Poultry Commission Director Patrick Fisk and Arkansas State Veterinarian John Nilz, the Arkansas Natural Resources Conservation Service, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, Hot Springs County Emergency Management, Malvern Mayor Brenda Weldon and state Rep. Rick McClure, R-Malvern.

"I've been a part of this from the very beginning," Hot Springs County Department of Emergency Management Director Randy Greathouse said.

"Working on a timeline, the very first call we got about this was on Aug. 29 at 3636 Grigsby Ford Road. ... I called the representative from ADEQ on Aug. 30."

Greathouse said there have been seven or eight complaints from residents related to the incident, and said the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality has taken the lead on investigation and remediation efforts.

"It's roughly seven miles of creek and this is going to take a lot of time, it's not going to be fixed overnight," Greathouse said.

"This is something that's probably not going to go away for probably months or years."

Malvern resident Marva Jasper said material on the water was "clumping up in that drainage ditch for a number of years.

"In October of 2021, we were cleaning up down on Walco Road and that fluid was standing thick there on the water, it was not flowing," Jasper said.

The memo for Anthony Timberland employees said there has been movement to force the closure of the Malvern sawmill.

"It is certainly a possibility that we will no longer be able to operate a sawmill in Malvern," the memo said. "Any corrective measures face serious space constraints.

"Up until now, we have sought to simply work with [the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality] to resolve the issues in this case. However, by failing to address the matter, we have allowed others to control the narrative and spread misinformation unchallenged," the memo said.

Division of Environmental Quality officials said last month that Anthony Timberlands is working on a remedial plan put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and providing daily updates to both agencies.

The state division received two draft proposed remediation and maintenance plans from Anthony Timberlands, and comments on the latest draft were sent to the timber company on Dec. 21.

The company's remediation and maintenance plan is expected to be finalized over the next month, according to the Anthony Timberlands news release Thursday.

Once those plans are in place, Anthony Timberlands Inc. plans to "... Evaluate its options going forward and whether residents and local government officials desire the 180+ jobs and $12 [million] of payroll that the facility brings," according to the news release.

Several landowners filed complaints last year and the Environmental Protection Agency was brought in to inspect the site on Oct. 15, alongside Arkansas Division of Emergency Management and Environmental Quality officials, according to the incident report.

The state environmental division's Office of Water Quality officials said in emailed responses Dec. 22 that "unpermitted discharges" had been occurring for a while because of failures in the operation and design of the sawmill's stormwater system.

"It appears that [Anthony Timberlands] have been not following water permits and was using waste water contaminated with hydraulic oil to continuously spray on their wood products as a dust suppressant," the division's incident report said.

This resulted in some oil-laden water draining downhill through nearby woods into a concrete ditch outside the facility, division officials said Dec. 22.

Steven Anthony said in an email on Wednesday that the plant site does not have room to expand its stormwater management facilities.

"This is a somewhat complicated issue, made more difficult by the fact that the plantsite has zero room to expand stormwater management facilities," Anthony said.

Chemical components of mineral oil hydraulic fluids can get into the body by swallowing or skin contact; health effects have been observed in animals that breathed, swallowed or had skin contact with organophosphate ester hydraulic fluids; and if spilled on soil, some hydraulic fluid ingredients may stay on top or sink into the groundwater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  photo  A map showing the location of Anthony Timberlands.