LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel Thursday approved a request to use $340,510 in state "rainy day" funds to pay for start up costs and the first year of a five-year environmental study on the impact of a hog farm located on a tributary to the Buffalo River.
C&H Hog Farms is located in Newton County along Big Creek, about six miles from its confluence with the Buffalo National River. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in 2012 issued an operational permit to the farm, which has about 6,500 hogs.
Environmental activist groups and others oppose the farm because of its proximity to the waterway and the potential for contamination. A lawsuit was filed recently in federal court in Little Rock against two federal agencies over the issuance of about $3.3 million in loan guarantees to the company.
During Thursday’s meeting of the Subcommittee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, Mark Cochran, vice president for agriculture and head of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said all information from the study conducted by his department will be turned over to ADEQ.
He said the governor’s office approached him about conducting the study.
The panel approved the fund transfer after lawmakers were told they would have to approve about $100,000 annually for each of the remaining for years to cover the cost of the study.
Cochran said the study will not only look at the environmental impact of any runoff from the hog farm into the Buffalo River and surrounding creeks and tributaries, but it also will study the alternative manure management techniques being used on the farm.
Owners of C&H Hog Farms plan to spread hog waste as fertilizer on some of their fields. Cochran said the process would be studied to determine the manure could be sold and transported to farms in other regions of the state.
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks said her agency will receive monitoring data every three months during the study and that, based on that information, changes would be recommended, if necessary, to the owners of the hog farm.
If environmental problems are discovered, the owners of the hog farm would only be penalized or lose their permit if they are in violation of the permit.
"Should this data indicate that there needs to be some changes made to the general permit, we can do that when the general permit comes up for renewal," she said.
Marks and Cochran also told lawmakers that data and other information gained by the study could be used when considering other similar operations around the state.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked Marks how the study would benefit the state and the agency, which has already issued the permit.
Marks said she wished these types of studies could be done all over the state but they are expensive.
"But any time we can get this type of information we certainly want to use it because if there is something we can do to tweak that permit or to change that … management plan in a way where it’s going to be more protective, and if there is any harm happening to the river because of this operation, then we want to know that and we want to take measures to make sure that it’s corrected," she said.
"So the two things combined together, you and this study, should bring about a comfort level moving forward," Hammer asked.
"I would certainly hope so," she said. "It sounds to me like it’s going to be a very comprehensive study."
The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of a coalition of conservation and citizens groups, argues that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration failed to conduct a proper environmental impact study of the area surrounding the farm.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the existing environmental assessment unlawful, and that the loans to the hog farm owners be enjoined and new environmental assessments be conducted with involvement from the National Park Service.