Hogs produce a lot of waste— can they peacefully coexist with a watershed?     Photo: the guitar mann/Getty Images

Hog Farm Threatens National River

Arkansas residents concerned about waste, E. coli

Arkansas' Buffalo River was the first named national river in the United States, but its waters might be in danger. Locals and environmental groups were shocked at the end of 2013 when the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) allowed an industrial hog farm to set up just six miles from the river. Today, a battle between the farm and its opponents continues as protests, water quality research, and behind-the-scenes conflicts emerge.

C&H Hog Farms will house 6,500 pigs to supply pork for the Cargill food processing company. Supporters of the farm say that hog farms have existed near watersheds with no impact on their waters. ADEQ director Teresa Marks told the New York Times that some of the farm's waste could reach the Buffalo River, but she was not concerned about environmental harm.

Supporters of the river are not convinced. Representatives of public interest groups assert that the farm is an economic disaster. According to a letter released by Earthjustice, C&H received a federal loan of $3.4 million just to construct the farm. Among other stated concerns are water contamination from hog waste and fertilizer, as well as general environmental degradation. "I'm just afraid of the stink," local Jewell Fowler told the Times.

"When this first started, they sent a petition around: 'Sign this paper if you don't want to swim in hog poop on the Buffalo,'" C&H co-owner Jason Henson told OzarksFirst.com. "I woulda signed the paper myself." The Hensons insist they have followed every regulation required for a permit, but activists have now taken up this issue as one of the main problems with C&H.

In February, representatives of public interest groups released a more detailed letter accusing ADEQ and C&H of faulty and expensive research that allowed the hog farm permit to go through. C&H claimed they had access to 17 parcels of land on which to dispose of waste, but farmers who owned three of those fields wrote to indicate they had never granted that permission. That skews the results of a government-funded research project that allowed C&H to obtain their permit in the first place. C&H received loans of more than half a million dollars just to make up for these errors, the groups say. "The people of Arkansas … have been seriously misled," says Ozark Society president Robert Cross.

Two independent research groups are now tasked with keeping track of the farm's impact. Earlier this month, the Big Creek Research Team, led by a professor at the University of Arkansas, released a quarterly report that measured as much as 8,500 colonies of E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. The ADEQ regulates a limit of 400 colonies per 100 milliliters.

This doesn't necessarily incriminate the farm, however. Researcher Andrew Sharpley said these readings were likely due mostly to high rainfall and flooding, and it's impossible to pinpoint a single source for the E. coli. The team's next step is to use a "dye trace" study to watch how quickly and where groundwater from the farm flows into surrounding areas.

In the midst of all this, Buffalo River received an Active Trails grant from the National Park Foundation to fund projects that will restore, protect, and create land and water trails around the river.