Fate of Buffalo River CAFO Is in Question as Water Impacts Accelerate

C&H Hog Farms appeals after permit to operate denied

By Jonathan Hahn

May 20, 2018


Photos courtesy of Carol Bitting

Defenders of Arkansas’s Buffalo River, the first designated “national river” in the United States, fear that soil and water contamination from an industrial-scale hog farm is accelerating as the fight over its fate plays out in court. 

In 2012, after word got out that C&H, a large-scale hog facility, was under construction in the Buffalo River Watershed, a public outcry forced the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to issue a temporary moratorium on any new CAFOs in the Buffalo River Watershed. C&H had quietly come into existence thanks to its initial application under a Regulation 6 permit, which did not require the owners to follow the usual standard public notification requirement for a concentrated animal feeding operation (or CAFO). ADEQ eventually discontinued the Regulation 6, which forced C&H to apply for a Regulation 5 Liquid Animal Waste Management Systems permit. On January 10 of this year, ADEQ issued a decision denying C&H Hog Farms’ application.

If the decision to deny C&H the permit stands, it could effectively shutter the operation. The farm is under contract with Brazilian meat processor JBS, which has made clear that it would void that contract immediately if C&H fails to get the decision overturned. After ADEQ’s denial, C&H filed a motion for a stay so that it could be allowed to continue operating during the appeal process. The company was granted that stay and then submitted its motion for an appeal. The judge overseeing the appeal has set a hearing date for August 5, 6, and 7.  

“We’re disappointed that the process is dragging out like this, because meanwhile C&H continues to operate, continues to spread waste, and the problem is just being compounded,” said Gordon Watkins, the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, an all-volunteer group of local stakeholders that was formed in response to C&H Farms. 

The January denial came after ADEQ received nearly 20,000 comments during a months-long comment period, more than any the department has received on any issue (the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance submitted nearly 100 pages of comments). The decision was a victory for the coalition of local stakeholders that has opposed C&H, albeit a bitter one. C&H is fighting the decision in court, and as the appeal process drags on, residents, farmers, river stewards, and environmental and outdoors advocacy organizations—including the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Ozark Society, and the Arkansas Canoe Club—fear a one-time environmental threat to the Buffalo River Watershed has turned into a full-blown crisis. 

C&H Hog Farms, co-owned by Richard and Phillip Campbell and their cousin Jason Henson (the “C” and “H,” respectively), houses approximately 6,000 hogs in large barns in Big Creek, near Mount Judea in Newton County (see “Buffalo River Hog CAFO Threatens America’s First National River”). The farm stores millions of gallons of hog feces and urine in two large ponds, waste that then gets sprayed onto surrounding fields—a process which poses serious environmental and public health threats. According to C&H’s own annual report, it spread over 2.5 million gallons of manure, process water, and litter on its fields in 2017. Soil tests on nearly every one of the fields have concluded that they are oversaturated with phosphorous. Even so, the state is still allowing C&H to apply waste to those fields. 

Phosphorous—the primary component, along with nitrate, in swine waste—tends to bind to the soil and build up, which then gets released over time. This has residents concerned about “legacy phosphorous.” A research farm in the Ozarks demonstrated that phosphorus can leach from the soil for decades even after waste applications have stopped; even if C&H ceased operating tomorrow, the impacts from phosphorus in Big Creek and downstream of the Buffalo National River could continue for years. 

The facility was built six miles from where Big Creek and the Buffalo River intersect and is less than a mile from Mount Judea School, one of the poorest K-12 schools in the state.  

C&H spray field

ADEQ’s decision to deny C&H a permit was based in part on a finding that the facility does not comply with the USDA Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook. State regulations require that applicants must comply with that document, which details how geological investigations on a project like C&H must be done, including impacts on groundwater flows and emergency response plans to waste pond failures, along with a variety of technical requirements. C&H is sited on karst topography, a porous form of limestone made of soluble rocks that is particularly vulnerable to groundwater contamination. The field handbook guidelines make clear that a CAFO farm dumping millions of gallons of waste onto soil should not be sited on karst.  

“Our argument from the beginning has been that this was the wrong place, probably the worst place, that you could possibly locate a facility like this,” Watkins said. “That's now proven by ADEQ’s decision that they do not comply with this waste management field handbook.”

Residents fear a full-blown environmental crisis is already under way. There have been increasing incidents of large algae blooms in the Buffalo River downstream of Big Creek, in some cases 20 miles long. Algae blooms are typically a sign of the kind of nutrient overload, phosphorous in particular, from industrial-scale animal confinement operations. When the algae dies, it uses up dissolved oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone that kills off macro invertebrates and other organisms that can’t swim away. The blooms can cause massive fish kills, impair riparian ecosystems, and make it difficult to paddle a canoe and impossible to fish. 

There’s been no definitive study linking C&H to the algae blooms, but it is a stress indicator, one among a number of developing ecological crises that has residents concerned. Before C&H went into production, there were never such massive algae blooms. The blooms have been alarming enough that the state has now set up an algae bloom reporting app residents can download on their smartphones so that they can report the blooms if they come across one.  

Residents blame ADEQ for creating a potential environmental catastrophe that could take years to undo. “Had we the opportunity to comment when the permit was first being considered, we wouldn't be here today,” Watkins said. “C&H would have been denied a permit, at that location at least, and they wouldn't be stuck in the middle of this fight like they are now.” 

Meanwhile, with much of C&H’s fields oversaturated with phosphorous, the Campbell brothers are now transporting waste to another location known as EC Farms, which is owned by a third brother, Ellis Campbell. EC Farms, located in Newton County, is a former swine operation that long ago closed its doors. Nothing is farmed there and no animals are being raised. The Campbell brothers, however, requested a permit modification that allowed them to spread C&H waste at the EC Farms fields. EC received the modified permit from ADEQ in February, and C&H has been spreading waste to the EC fields since March.  

Carol Bitting is fighting the EC permit in court with two other women, Nancy Holler and Lynn Wellford, who have come to be known as the “Three Grandmothers.” They are awaiting a state circuit court decision on their appeal of the ADEQ decision to grant EC Farms a permit. The decision on the appeal could take months. “My husband and I and our grandkids and family have gotten to where we don’t go down to the Buffalo anymore except when I go to take pictures of algae and water quality,” she said in an interview. “I wouldn’t take my children down there to swim. It’s too risky.” 

Bitting is a biological technician who for over 20 years has lived in the watershed with her husband, an employee of the National Park Service. She grew up in Arkansas; one of her first memories was swimming in the Buffalo. She’s also an avid caver who has caved the whole area. The couple lives within a mile of the Buffalo River and eight miles from C&H; they can smell the stench of the hog manure from their home.  

“It was devastating,” she said, describing her reaction in 2012 to the news that the state would allow a CAFO in the Buffalo Watershed. “To me and a lot of people, we couldn’t even talk about it for a long time, because it just crushes your chest.” 

Bitting has taken scientists and university students on field visits to take data and other samples, and is friends with others who work at the National Park Service, as well as at ADEQ. Readings from water samples she’s taken show increasing levels of nitrate and phosphorous. Also, she’s reported very large readings of E. coli after storms, larger than she’s ever seen before. “Sometimes the increases are gradual, but there’s no question the levels are increasing.” 

Buffalo River algae bloom, August 2017

In June, Bitting will take part in an algae study led by Ozark River Stewards and Dr. Bob Allen of the Arkansas Canoe Club. The Park Service and USGS have also conducted recent tests on dissolved oxygen, and residents are waiting to see if Arkansas will list Big Creek as one of the state’s impaired waterways. 

The ongoing effort to defend the Buffalo has taken its toll on many residents who have been in the fight since the beginning. Still, according to Bitting, who recently took a break due to exhaustion, there are signs that the community overall is starting to rally and become more informed. 

“When I talk with people, I’m finding more and more that folks who live right here are becoming aware of what’s going on, and becoming aware that our water is deteriorating,” she said. “I’m finding that people want to change and make it better. That’s the good thing, in all this battle and all this fight. I’m really hoping that we can heal many of the attitudes and old emotions that people are carrying around over this, and start building a community for the future, and for our waterway.”