The news from the Buffalo River continues to be bad, between increasing algae and pollution problems and  Governor Hutchinson’s overt corporate politicking in government agencies. The Farm Bureau now effectively has a designated seat on the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in the person of Mike Freeze and his first outing wasn’t environmentally inspiring for protectors of the Buffalo.

The issue today was the convoluted permit situation for C & H, the factory hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed at Mount Judea. The good news is that the Commission rejected an argument by a lawyer paid by the Farm Bureau that C & H was entitled to a perpetual permit for its waste disposal. No, a hearing officer has determined. The commission has now affirmed that one permit has expired and a second type of permit has been denied. The appeal on the second permit continues so the farm may continue to operate.

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But this was the interesting news today. Hutchinson recently appointed Farm Bureau leader Mike Freeze, a Keo fish farmer, to the commission. The governor has bragged about that appointment and a commitment to putting the state agriculture secretary on the commission.

Well and good, since polluting interests have tended to control the commission anyway. But today’s news is an egregious conflict of interest. Freeze had written in favor of the permit for C & H before he was appointed. He was asked by environmentalists to recuse from today’s vote on the administrative law judge’s finding, given the evidence that he was biased in favor of C & H. He refused to recuse and then he voted (in the minority) for C & H in today’s permit discussion.

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Richard Mays, representing the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, in making his case that Freeze should recuse, read a couple of emails Freeze sent ADEQ during a public comment last year, before his appointment, on the individual permit sought by C & H. Freeze’s first comment, in February, expressed favor for granting C & H the permit. Freeze was moved to make a second comment in March:

I am writing you in support of C & H Hog farms being issued their ADEQ permit. Enough is enough! This farm has complied with every restriction asked of them and are good stewards of the environment. I urge ADEQ to use science in issuing the C & H Hog farm permit and not to allow emotional appeals from various people to sway ADEQ from doing what is right. 

Mays and Sam Ledbetter, who represents the Sierra Club Ozark Society, said they weren’t questioning Freeze’s personal integrity, but that it was important to their clients — who aren’t hysterical, Mays noted later, despite the reference to emotional people — and the public that the commission avoid the appearance of bias. Mays said his clients, too, have asked the commission to make its permit decisions on science.

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Freeze, in response, said, “I am an environmentalist also.” He said he could “compartmentalize” his previous opinions and his decisions as a commissioner that would be based on more information than he had when he wrote the comments.  “I can be fair and honest,” Freeze said.

When you behold the algae-clogged Buffalo, think about Mike Freeze.

You might also remember Judge Wendell Griffen. I bet Sen. Trent Garner and similar won’t be calling for the removal of Freeze, a putative neutral fact-finder, from his new position of influence over the pollution of Arkansas air and water.

The other bad Buffalo River news is the enormous growth of algae in the scenic river. It includes the discovery of a harmful bacteria that has prompted cautions about swimming and wading and drinking water from the river, as detailed in the link from the National Park
Service.

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The Buffalo and Big Creek, on which C and H sits, also appear on a list of many Arkansas waterways designated as having impaired water quality, a situation reported this morning in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  Watch closely those appointed to protect them and how they vote.