Environmental groups push back on ADEQ permitting bill that could join special session call

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 659 views 

The Sierra Club is gathering signatures and drumming up public pushback in an effort to quash a potential legislative item from appearing on a special session call they say is related to a controversial hog farm near the Buffalo River watershed. The bill’s sponsor says she has the interest of hundreds of Arkansas farming and industry permit holders in mind.

On Wednesday (March 7), officials with the Arkansas Sierra Club, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, and the Ozark Society held a joint press conference in Little Rock to urge Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislative leaders to block adding a measure they argue would aid the swine operation C&H Farm and harm the Buffalo River and other waterways.

The Buffalo River watershed is home to more than 300 species of fish, insects, freshwater mussels and aquatic plans, such as the endangered snuffbox mussel, the endangered Gray bat and the endangered Indiana bat. Designated as America’s first national river in 1972, the Buffalo National River travels freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Popular for camping, canoeing and fishing, it attracts more than 1 million visitors a year.

“Every Arkansan loves the Buffalo River, and our state leaders each bear a sacred responsibility to protect her,” Sierra Club state director Glen Hooks said. “We don’t need gamesmanship and power grabs that allow the Buffalo River to be polluted by hog waste — we need a common-sense and science-based approach to keeping this area pristine. The Sierra Club calls on Governor Hutchinson and the state legislature to prioritize science and conservation over politics and pollution.”

The three environmental groups presented a draft bill being circulated at the state capitol sponsored by Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, that would allow for a general permit gained from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to be transferred to an individual permit. General permits must be renewed every five years, whereas individual permits are permanent as long as the business is in compliance and ongoing, according to the groups.

The draft bill also includes an emergency clause, which would allow it to become law immediately if signed by the governor.

“Our groups have worked for years to fight hog waste pollution in the Buffalo – within the administrative and legal process. The legislature should not short-circuit the process in place or make efforts that would deny anyone due process,” Gordon Watkins, President of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said.

Saying sound science, not legislative whims, should guide the decision-making process on permits, David Peterson, President of the Ozark Society, added, “We believe that the best place for these decisions to be made is by experts and in the administrative process currently underway — not by legislators seeking reelection. Our groups urge the Governor and General Assembly to refrain from legislative efforts that put our waterways in danger.”

Rep. Vaught said she has the interest of every ADEQ Regulation 5 (Reg. 5) permit holder at heart with her legislation, which she expects to garner more co-sponsors in the coming days.

“I want to make sure that all the farmers that are dairymen and hog farmers that have Reg. 5’s are covered completely with their permits,” she said.

A Reg. 5 permit is a five-year liquid animal waste management system permit issued by ADEQ. According to the agency’s web site, the purpose of the regulation is to establish the minimum qualifications, standards and procedures for the issuance of permits for confined animal operations using liquid animal waste management systems within the state and for the issuance of permits for land application sites within the state. In theory, farming operations or food processing facilities would need a Reg. 5 permit.

C&H Farm received permits from Arkansas regulatory officials in late 2012. In August 2015, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission ordered a five-year ban on new permits for large swine factory farms in the watershed. A few months later, C&H Farm’s Reg. 5 permit expired, but the hog operator was allowed to remain in operation while its application for a new permit was reviewed.

In early 2017, The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality began hosting hearings to discuss C&H’s new permit, allowing the swine farm to apply liquid waste on “numerous farm fields in Newton County” in accord with Commission’s Reg. 5.

Vaught said she’s not sure if C&H Farm would be helped by her bill under its existing circumstances. She worries that other Reg. 5 permit holders — 527 farming and industry permit holders statewide by her last count — are dealing with uncertainty and that is causing panic among lending institutions who are nervous to make long-term loans when a permit could be yanked five years later.

“I hope it will be on the call to give lending institutions the comfort that they need to start lending back to farmers again, and give farmers confidence that they can continue farming in Arkansas without hesitation,” she said.

Vaught contends that she is not proposing a circumvention of any existing process, but she wants to add security and certainty to the present procedures.

“This should not circumvent any process that’s already in place. I don’t even know if this will help C&H Hog Farm in any way,” Vaught said. “It’s not just about farming, it’s about protecting our industries at the same time.”

The governor, who has not committed to Vaught’s bill, said he will call a special session after lawmakers conclude the fiscal session, which could be done by week’s end. Hutchinson has cited two measures that he feels must be dealt with, including the regulation of pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs) and a change to state law to allow about $11 million in federal highway funding to be spent less restrictively.

There are other measures getting consideration in the hallways of the capitol. Dealing with permissible uses of 529 college savings funds has derailed the end of the fiscal session as there is debate on whether participants in those plans can use the money for private school expenses. Some lawmakers contend the matter needs to be handled through a regular legislative process, not through special language in the appropriations bill of the Treasurer of State.

Another measure being discussed for a potential special session call would deal with ATV safety and certification. Additionally, there is draft legislation seeking to provide an exception for those with certain disabilities to play bingo in Arkansas. New technology has made electronic devices more handicapped accessible, but legal language would need to qualify it under the state’s strict bingo guidelines. Finally, the ADEQ permit measure could also be a consideration.

J.R. Davis, spokesman for Gov. Hutchinson, said a decision on special session call items has not been finalized and won’t likely be determined until early next week. The governor, who sets the agenda for a special session call, has cited three conditions for allowing an item to be added. They include having at least two-thirds of signatures from both chambers of the General Assembly, a finalized draft version of the legislation, and the issue must reach “emergency” status.

“At this point, we’ve got a lot of legislation and signatures that we’re beginning to review. We’ll start determining what meets those three levels soon,” Davis tells Talk Business & Politics.