The Pollution Control and Ecology Commission voted Friday to enact a 180-day moratorium on granting permits for new medium and large swine operations in the Buffalo National River Watershed – the third temporary ban enacted by the commission.
The action was taken as part of a third-party rulemaking process initiated by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Ozark Society. The groups have proposed rules meant to prevent the creation of new swine operations involving at least 750 swine weighing 55 pounds or 3,000 swine weighing less than that amount. The first moratorium was issued on April 25, 2014.
Controversy arose after the establishment of the 6,500-head C&H Hog Farm at Mount Judea near the Buffalo. The farm, the first operation of its kind to receive a permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, has nine waste-application fields on Big Creek, a tributary that flows six stream miles from the farm. Critics of the large operation fear the farm will endanger the Buffalo River. The river attracted 1.093 million visitors who spent $44 million and created 610 jobs in 2012, according to a 2012 National Park Service report.
The animals are owned by the food processing company Cargill.
Charles Moulton, PC&E administrative law judge, said the commission wanted to give the Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson time to consider the changes being sought by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Ozark Society. Hutchinson this week issued a press release expressing his support for the moratorium along with a five-year sunset clause as part of the new rule. The sunset clause would give the University of Arkansas time to study the impact of current feeding operations, he said.
“Science and facts will drive our future decisions,” the statement said. “In the meantime, we’ll do everything we can to protect the watershed while the facts are collected.”
The rulemaking process had already gone through a public comment period and was heard by a legislative committee in the interim before the recent legislative session but never underwent a vote, Moulton said. Moulton said the addition of a sunset clause could result in the requirement of another public comment period.
Kyle Leyenberger, Arkansas Public Policy Panel communications and information coordinator, said the Panel has not yet taken a position on the sunset clause but added, “We’re happy that the governor wants to move forward and we look forward to working with him to make sure the Buffalo is protected in the future.”
Moulton said it’s unknown if the rulemaking process could conclude before the moratorium expires.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has dropped its challenge of a December ruling by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall that the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Administration had violated several environmental laws by guaranteeing loans to the farm without sufficiently considering its environmental impact. That’s according to a press release from Earthjustice published by the Arkansas Times. Efforts by Talk Business & Politics to obtain a copy of the release from Earthjustice were not successful.
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel believes the original permit for the C&H Farm should not have been issued. However, Matthew Morris, policy director, said it does not want to remove the permit now that it has been issued.
“That is not our intention from the Panel’s perspective,” he said. “They did everything right. They went and got the permit. They’ve done everything that needed to be done. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have these rules and regulations in place beforehand. But they’ve done nothing wrong. So far, they’ve obeyed the law, and that is not our intent.”