The legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) joint subcommittee today approved Gov. Mike Beebe’s request for $340,510 to implement pollution testing and monitoring at the C&H Hog Farm in Mt. Judea. The farm has stirred controversy because of its proximity to a major tributary of the Buffalo River. The study will be conducted by water and soil experts at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and paid for out of Rainy Day funds.
Dr. Mark J. Cochran, Vice President for Agriculture at the U of A, testified that the plan has three major components: 1) monitoring the nutrients and bacteria resulting from the land application of liquid fertilizer (intensive monitoring will be conducted in three of the seventeen application fields), 2) testing the impact of the farm — both the manure holding ponds and the application of liquid fertilizer — on water quality on and around the farm, and 3) research the effectiveness and sustainability of alternative manure management techniques, including the possibility of solid separation and transporting nutrients out of the watershed rather than applying them as fertilizer. You can read the full plan
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The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality remains the regulatory agency over the farm, and the U of A researchers will give ADEQ quarterly reports of their findings. ADEQ Director Teresa Marks testified that they would make those findings publicly available. If a problem was found, ADEQ could revise the permit and/or nutrient management plan that the farm is operating under, in which case the farm would then have to adjust their practice to comply. You can see the memorandum of understanding between ADEQ and the U of A
The C&H farmers are on board with the testing program. What about Cargill, the owner of the hogs and the farm’s sole buyer? Their spokesman Mike Martin, always cagey, said, “Cargill does not object to monitoring programs that are based on accepted scientific protocols.” He said they had not yet seen the final plan and that it was ultimately the decision of the C&H farmers.
Cochran testified that a testing program of this kind should typically last at least five years. The $340,510 will cover the first year, including setting up monitoring stations; subsequently, if the legislature approved more funds, the cost would be around $100,000 per year.
The testing program is likely to leave conservationists concerned about the farm unsatisfied. “They’re spending at least half a million dollars to fix a problem that shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Robert Cross, president of the Ozark Society, one of the groups suing federal agencies over their loan guarantee of the farm.
Dr. John Van Brahana, a just-retired University of Arkansas geology professor and an expert in karst geology who has raised concerns about the environmental impact of the farm, attended today’s meeting. He said of the testimony on the testing plan, “there was a little more salesmanship than fact.” He said that the plan failed to take sufficient account of the karst geology and the movement of groundwater (a frequent complaint from critics of the permit that C&H is operating under) and wouldn’t cover a sufficient area to identify potential problems. The plan does not include dye testing to determine water pathways, but Brahana is currently doing his own dye testing, as well as water-quality testing. Many Mt. Judea area residents have allowed Brahana to do testing on their properties. C&H has not. Brahana said that he sent Beebe a summary of his preliminary findings earlier this week.
Rep. Nate Bell, meanwhile, said that he was confident there would not be problems with phosphorous runoff or other contamination. “If [land application] is done properly, the risk is so small you can’t even quantify it,” he said. “Everything is in place to indicate that it’s been engineered correctly, the hydrology analysis has been done, all of the safeguards are in place. If [C&H] follows the plan that they’ve outlined, I think there’s widespread agreement among scientists that there’s virtually no risk.” Bell, himself a chicken farmer, said that he approved of the testing program in order to protect the interests of both the public and the farmers. “As a farmer, I welcome this kind of monitoring because it proves that the science-based practices we’re using on the farm work,” he said.
The first quarterly report of the testing program is set to be submitted to ADEQ in January of 2014.