A coalition of conservation and citizen groups sent a letter of demand today requesting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) take action to ensure that the authorization of loan guarantee assistance to C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea, Arkansas complies with the law. C&H is an industrial hog factory—under contract with Cargill, an international producer and marketer of agricultural products—that will have 6,500 swine when fully operational and is located on the banks of the Big Creek tributary that flows directly into the Buffalo National River. The groups assert that the loan guarantee to the hog facility hinges on a flawed environmental review process that violates the law and does not follow USDA’s own regulations.
The letter is intended to notify USDA and SBA that unless acceptable solutions are implemented by July 8, 2013, the groups will be forced to seek compliance with the law in court.
“We are compelled to move forward in our efforts to prevent this hog factory farm from proceeding without a thorough examination of the consequences,” said Emily Jones, Senior Program Manager, Southeast Region at National Parks Conservation Association. “The Buffalo River is the crown jewel of Arkansas’ natural beauty and our country’s first national river. We must protect it from the waste and pollutants spewed from an atrociously misplaced industrial facility.”
The 150-mile Buffalo River flows through the heart of the Ozarks in northwestern Arkansas and runs through rapids and quiet pools surrounded by massive multi-colored cliffs rising nearly 700 feet above the riverbed. The river’s watershed includes 700 species of trees and plants and provides habitat for 250 species of birds and a variety of wildlife. More than one million people visit the Buffalo National River each year to canoe, float the river, swim, hike, and camp in a spectacular and unspoiled setting, generating $38 million in local economic benefit for the region.
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 Elementary School, and ignores the consequences of liquid manure running through the porous karst geology of the Buffalo River region.
In addition, the notice of FSA’s environmental assessment was never published in a local newspaper in the vicinity of Mount Judea, Arkansas and no public comments were received. The National Park Service (NPS) was not informed of FSA’s environmental review until February 2013 – two months after some $3.5 million in loans were already guaranteed by FSA and SBA to the C&H operation. In fact, in a subsequent letter to FSA, the Park Service proceeded to identify 45 problems with the environmental assessment and stated that it was “so woefully inadequate that it should immediately be rescinded.”
“It is incredible that no one, most especially those of us who live in the Buffalo River watershed, was notified about an industrial-sized hog farm so close to the river until after C&H was guaranteed millions by the FSA and SBA,” said Jack Stewart, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “Considering the magnitude of the hog operation and the impacts to our health and the health of the Buffalo River, thousands of Arkansans would have fought the placement of this factory farm from the outset.”
“Due to the tragic lack of appropriate public notice, I learned of the granting of a loan to C&H Hog Farms with the loan guarantee by FSA and SBA several months after the fact,” said Robert Cross, president of the Ozark Society. “I then read the EA in detail. In my many years in industry and academia I have never seen such irresponsibility and negligence in carrying out a task having so much importance to the primary stakeholders—the American public. Although 600 pages long, it is all virtually meaningless and obviously prepared with the thought that there would be no review. I do have faith in the American justice system in that FSA and SBA will be called to account as a step to stopping the hog farm in the fragile ecosystem of the Buffalo National River.”
A particularly glaring flaw in the environmental assessment is the hog facility’s Nutrient Management Plan (NMP), which contains significant errors, omissions and misrepresentations. C&H will dump additional phosphorus-laden hog waste onto fields that already have all, or more than, the phosphorus they need. Accordingly, if the hog facility proceeds, significant amounts of phosphorus will be available for runoff into groundwater, Big Creek and downstream to the Buffalo River, causing nuisance algae and significantly altering the ecology of the stream system. With this facility sitting atop extremely porous ground, the risk for contamination of the Buffalo River is exceptionally high, and this risk is at odds with the protections required for a national park.
Despite the numerous problems overlooked in the environmental assessment’s NMP, in the absence of any public opposition a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) was signed by the FSA on August 24, 2012. In December 2012, the FSA authorized loan guarantee assistance requested by Farm Credit Service of Western Arkansas on behalf of C&H for 90 percent of a $1,302,000 farm ownership loan. SBA guaranteed a separate farm ownership loan issued by Farm Credit to C&H in the amount of $2,318,136.
“We believe that FSA and SBA violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Buffalo National River Enabling Act with their loan guarantees to C&H,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the groups. “FSA also egregiously violated their own regulations requiring local public notice and proceeded through its entire environmental review and decision-making process with absolutely zero public input.”
In sum, Emily Jones at National Parks Conservation Association said, “The complete lack of public input to date, the inadequacy of the environmental review, and the severity of the potential environmental impact to Arkansas’ signature outdoor tourist attraction, make it imperative for the USDA to take corrective action and revise the environmental assessment and the decision to issue a loan guarantee to C&H Hog Farms.”
Earthjustice, Earthrise and local attorney Hank Bates are representing the Arkansas Canoe Club, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Ozark Society in sending the letter to the USDA and SBA.