Blog Post Emily Jones Jan 20, 2015

Judge’s Ruling a Victory for Buffalo National River

A win for Arkansas’ Buffalo River: A judge will hold two agencies liable for a flawed environmental review process of a factory farm six miles upstream.

The end of 2014 brought a legal victory so significant for the Buffalo National River watershed in Arkansas that the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice called it “a rare win against industrial agriculture and federal malfeasance.”

Congress established the Buffalo National River in 1972 as America’s first national river. Over a million people visit this national park each year, spending over $46 million annually in local communities. Activities at the park include canoeing, fishing, swimming, caving, camping, hiking, hunting, and sightseeing.

Last month, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall found two federal agencies liable for illegally guaranteeing portions of approximately $3.6 million in loans applied for by C&H Hog Farms, a 6,500-animal factory farm that began operating on a tributary of the river in 2013. The two federal agencies—the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA)—guaranteed these loans despite failing to conduct adequate environmental reviews.

Above: NPCA’s new video shares more on the history and environmental concerns posed by the proximity of C&H Hog Farms to Buffalo National River.

The FSA did prepare a cursory document claiming the hog farm would have no significant environmental impact, but without sufficient documentation or reasoning to back up the claim. The FSA then failed to properly notify the public of the study and left only a 15-day window for public comment. Not surprisingly, no one commented. Both the assessment and the public notice are required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Not even the National Park Service knew about the environmental assessment until after the fact. After receiving a copy of the FSA environmental assessment finding no significant impact, the National Park Service submitted a letter to FSA outlining 45 flaws and deficiencies in the assessment. The Park Service asked to halt the project until the agency, the public, and other stakeholders had a chance to comment.

In addition to the NEPA violations, the judge also ruled that both agencies violated the Endangered Species Act by not properly consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on potential impacts the hog farm could have on protected species—particularly the endangered gray bat.

C&H Hog Farms provides piglets for the giant meat-processing company Cargill. Its thousands of pigs create an estimated 1.8 million gallons of waste each year on the banks of Big Creek, a waterway six miles upstream of Buffalo National River. C&H stores the hog excrement in two settling ponds. Periodically, the company drains the ponds and sprays the waste on a series of fields, most of which are also on the banks of a tributary of the Buffalo River.

Disposing millions of gallons of hog waste upstream of a national river where thousands of families swim and fish is bad enough in itself—but the region’s porous geography, known as “karst,” is particularly susceptible to spreading contaminants, making the seriousness of the violations even worse. The karst geology of the national park includes over 360 caves and thousands of sinkholes, sinking streams, and springs.

NPCA served as a plaintiff in the federal suit along with three partner organizations, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, and the Ozark Society, all of whom were represented by Earthjustice, Earthrise Law Center, and Carney Bates & Pulliam, PLLC. In the final ruling, Judge Marshall agreed that the environmental assessment “didn’t mention the Buffalo River or Big Creek, misstated that C&H would have 2,500 swine, didn’t address any alternative locations, didn’t mention the Gray Bat, and concluded without explanation that mitigation measures were unnecessary.”

Now it’s up to these two agencies to make it right.

What’s next?

Per the judge’s ruling, the FSA and SBA have until December 2015 to conduct the proper environmental reviews and consultations that should have occurred in the first place. Depending on the findings, this additional review could require that C&H Hog Farms meet new environmental conditions to continue to receive the loans backed by these agencies.

In the meantime, NPCA has been supporting the Ozark Society’s work on the state level to ensure that factory farming within the Buffalo River watershed does not adversely impact national park resources.

Last year, after significant public protest against the factory farm, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission issued a moratorium preventing any new medium- or large-sized factory farms in the Buffalo River watershed. This moratorium is temporary, however, and the commission could fail to renew it when it expires on April 20, 2015. Although Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who took office earlier this month, campaigned on a pro-Buffalo platform, it remains to be seen whether he will champion a permanent moratorium.

The Ozark Society, NPCA, and other allies are investigating the best way to move forward on a permanent moratorium—the best step toward protecting this watershed from further harm.

For news and email alerts on this and other critical national park issues, consider signing up for NPCA’s Action Center.

About the author

  • Emily Jones Senior Program Manager, Southeast

    Emily’s work as Senior Program Manager for the Southeast region revolves around building momentum within local communities and garnering congressional support to ensure our national parks become a national priority.