A coalition of conservation and citizen groups filed suit today challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for their inadequate review and improper authorization of loan guarantee assistance to C&H Hog Farms, a 6,500-pig factory farm located on a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, a national park site and the country’s first national river. The groups set forth their concerns in a letter to the federal agencies dated June 6, 2013, and are bringing suit only after the agencies have made clear that they are not remedying their violations of the law. The suit was filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Western Division.
“FSA and SBA failed to provide the public notice and undertake the environmental review and consultations required by law, so we’re asking the court to set aside the loan guarantees and instruct the agencies to comply,” said Emily Jones of the National Parks Conservation Association. “We have asked FSA and SBA to do the right thing without litigation, but they have not, and today we find ourselves in court to protect the Buffalo River, a national treasure of immeasurable worth.”
The Buffalo River travels through the heart of the Ozark Mountains in northwestern Arkansas, and runs beneath magnificent cliffs which at times extend nearly 700 feet above the river's clear, quiet pools and rushing rapids. One hundred thirty-five miles of the Buffalo comprise the national river, which attracts more than one million visitors each year who float the crystal waters, camp on the gravel bars, and hike the trails—generating $38 million toward the local economy.
“The Buffalo is an astonishingly beautiful natural resource, Arkansas’ crown jewel,” said Jack Stewart of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “Siting an industrial hog facility so close to the river threatens to desecrate this national treasure, known to so many for its peaceful meanderings and the scent of wild azaleas in bloom.”
The C&H facility is located on the banks of Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River, in Mount Judea, Arkansas. Under a contract with Cargill, Inc., an international agricultural and food conglomerate, C&H will confine 6,500 pigs at a time making the operation the first of its size and scale in the Buffalo River watershed. The pigs will produce more than two million gallons of manure, wastewater and litter each year, which will be collected in open-air storage ponds on site and spread onto approximately 630 acres of land surrounding the farm and adjacent to the banks of Big Creek. These manure application fields are less than six miles upstream from Big Creek’s confluence with the Buffalo National River, and several are located directly adjacent to Mount Judea School.
“Local residents will suffer the most from this absurdly located factory farm,” said Debbie Doss of the Arkansas Canoe Club. “Residents of Mount Judea will be exposed, downwind, to the smell and adverse health effects of methane and hydrogen sulfide. A swine facility this large will put children at the Mount Judea School at high risk of health impacts including asthma and other respiratory conditions.”
The C&H facility received more than $3.4 million in loan guarantee assistance from the federal government. FSA approved a loan guarantee for 90 percent of a $1,302,000 loan to C&H. SBA approved a loan guarantee for a $2,318,136 loan.
In providing this federal assistance, SBA undertook no environmental review whatsoever, while FSA prepared a deeply flawed and insufficient environmental assessment that fails to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Among multiple errors and omissions, FSA’s environmental assessment incorrectly defines the acreage of the C&H facility, does not take into account nearby sensitive areas such as the Mount Judea School, and ignores the consequences of manure draining through the porous karst geology of the Buffalo River region.
“In the 60’s and 70’s the Ozark Society worked with Congress to have the Buffalo protected for posterity as the nation’s first national river,” said Robert Cross of the Ozark Society. “We have countered threats to the river before, but now face the biggest threat to date. Despite the assurances of C&H that they have the highest level of technology to prevent accidents, the siting of this facility in karst terrain and directly adjacent to a tributary of the Buffalo River will not require an accident to cause tremendous damage to the river and the surrounding environment. SBA and FSA should have, but did not, consider these factors in its review of the proposed project.”
In addition, the notice of FSA’s environmental assessment was never published in a local newspaper in Mount Judea. FSA also failed to inform the National Park Service Superintendent of the Buffalo National River of the environmental review as required, and the superintendent did not find out about the environmental assessment and guarantee assistance until well after it had been approved for the C&H operation. In a letter to FSA, the Park Service identified 45 problems with FSA’s environmental assessment and stated that it was “so woefully inadequate that it should immediately be rescinded.”
“The rubber-stamping of the requested loan guarantees, the inadequate review of the environmental consequences, and the failure to notify the local community and to consult with sister agencies as required, makes a mockery of the law and puts a national treasure in harm’s way,” said Hannah Chang, attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice. “It should never have come to this point, and we are in court to make sure it is put right and doesn’t happen again.”
Earthjustice, Earthrise Law Center, and local attorney Hank Bates are representing the Arkansas Canoe Club, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Ozark Society in filing this complaint against the USDA and SBA.