Federal Judge Price Marshall ruled today in Little Rock that two federal agencies hadn’t done an adequate environmental assessment before guaranteeing $3.6 million in loans for a major hog feeding operation in Newton County near the Big Creek tributary to the Buffalo National River.
The judge enjoined the loan guarantees, meaning they are no longer in effect.
The judge said USDA Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Administration had acted arbitrarily in failing to consider impact on threatened and endangered species potentially affected by the operation. The C and H Hog Farm, which supplies pork to agriculture giant Cargill, has been feared as a potential polluter of the Buffalo River, particularly because of the porous limestone that underlies the region.
The immediate impact of the ruling isn’t clear. Without a guaranteed loan, the lender to the hog farm might have concerns to address with the farm, but the farm has been operating without reported difficulties. The immediate impact of the ruling is that the agency’s will have to conduct a new review within a year. This might produce new environmental requirements for the operation.
The environmental organization Earthjustice, which helped plaintiffs in the suit, issued a release:
“The Court saw the federal government agencies’ actions for what they were—a disdain and complete disregard for the laws that protect our environment,” said Earthjustice attorney Hannah Chang. “We believe the Court’s decision will help to set things straight in this debacle that has put more than $3.6 million in federal taxpayer dollars on the line to support a massive swine factory farm upstream of a treasured national resource.”
Hank Bates, the Little Rock lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he hadn’t fully read it yet, but said, “This changes the landscape. Momentum is in the right direction.”
The plaintiffs were the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Ozark Society. Defendants were the federal agencies, not the hog farm. Comments provided by Earthjustice:
Buffalo River Watershed Alliance Board member Dane Schumacher: “We are hopeful that the court’s decision will result in a more thorough consideration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration of the effects this swine facility, and others like it, have on local communities as well as on national treasures like the Buffalo River.”
Arkansas Canoe Club Board member Bob Allen: “It is not a question of if, but rather when and how much, pollutants from the hog factory, including excess nitrogen, phosphorous and bacteria, will make their way to the Buffalo National River. The Court’s decision today means that the federal government will actually have to consider the environmental impacts of the hog factory that it made possible—something the involved agencies should have done from the very start.”
Emily Jones, Senior Program Manager in NPCA’s Southeast Regional Office: This ruling is an important step forward for the protection of the Buffalo, America’s first National River. The Buffalo River belongs to the nation and the American people for this and future generations to enjoy and its protection is the responsibility of the federal government. This ruling squarely calls into question the adequacy of the Farm Service Agency’s and Small Business Administration’s prior environmental review, and requires that both agencies undertake the procedures necessary to ensure adequate protections of this national treasure.”
Robert Cross, President of the Ozark Society: “We are extremely pleased by Judge Marshall’s decision. The flaunting of federal regulations by the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Administration in the loan guarantee process that allowed the construction of C & H Hog Farms was a severe blow to the people of Arkansas and the nation who believe in the protection of our unique and beautiful natural resources such as the Buffalo River. The decision can undo only some of the damage done, but it will hopefully serve as a message to others who consider similar egregious acts in the future.”
Here’s the judge’s ruling, which he’d indicated would take this shape at an earlier hearing. The facts about laws ignored, seeping waste pits and potential for pollution are stark. The judge didn’t accept the argument that the defendants had no role in potential damage. Without their guarantees, the farm couldn’t have gotten loans to operate, the judge said.
The judge said the agencies could now take the “hard look” they should have taken at the beginning and perhaps set conditions. More review by the agencies likely will affect how the farm is operated, the judge said. He noted how flawed the environmental assessment had been — no mention of the Buffalo River, Big Creek, the nearby Mount Judea school or the endangered gray bat. There was no notice in the local newspaper. The size of the operation was unprecedented. It now has 6,500 hogs. The federal agencies merely figured that state review would cover the operation. We know, if the judge didn’t say it, how little the state regulatory agency said and did.
In finding for most of the plaintiffs’ claims — for example, he turned down one because he found the project wasn’t on the Buffalo River and this didn’t run afoul of its enabling act as a national river — he said it opened the door to attorney fees.
I’ve been unable to reach anyone at C and H for a reaction.