In early December, environmentalists and community members celebrated a rare win against industrial agriculture and federal malfeasance in Arkansas. In a court case brought by Earthjustice, U.S. District Judge Price Marshall issued a decision finding that federal agencies illegally guaranteed loans to C&H Hog Farms, a factory farm near the Buffalo National River, without first effectively evaluating the potential environmental impacts of this swine operation.
The Buffalo National River was established as America’s first National River in 1978, and it is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. The river’s 135-mile course is cherished for its untouched beauty and the diversity of its roaring rapids and tranquil pools that hug the Ozark Mountains. The park was designed to protect the historical and cultural history of the region, which was first settled close to 10,000 years ago. The region is home to over 300 species of fish, insects, freshwater mussels and aquatic plants – including the endangered Gray bat, Indiana bat and snuffbox mussel. Unfortunately, this pristine wilderness is now also home thousands of pigs and their waste: supported by American tax dollars.
C&H Hog Farms, a producer for Cargill, Inc., one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States, is the first large concentrated animal-feeding operation (CAFO) in the Buffalo River watershed and the first to receive an operating permit from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. In order to get the permit approved, the company proposed a plan for managing the waste of its 6,500 pigs. The plan indicated that the pigs create more than one million gallons of waste-filled water every year, approximately the equivalent to the waste generated by a city of 35,000 people. This contaminated water is stored in two small, unlined and uncovered settling ponds in a region geologically known for its porous limestone. These ponds are then periodically drained, and the liquid waste is sprayed over nearby fields on the banks of a tributary to the Buffalo National River.
In 2012 C&H applied for $3.6 million in loans from Farm Credit Services of Western Arkansas. To receive these loans, the hog farm applied for loan guaranties from two federal agencies. The first agency, the Small Business Administration, guaranteed 75% of a $2.3 million loan without taking any action to evaluate environmental impacts.
The second backer, Farm Service Agency, was required by standard practice to prepare an environmental assessment before granting C&H’s request. In the words of the district court, the evaluation prepared by this agency “was cursory and flawed. It didn’t mention the Buffalo River. It didn’t mention Big Creek,” the tributary next to the sprayfields. “It didn’t mention the nearby Mt. Judea school. It didn’t mention the Gray Bat.”
The evaluation concluded without explanation that measures to prevent environmental harm were unnecessary and then quietly published the notice of its conclusions only in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a state-wide Little Rock-based newspaper , despite a requirement that the agency also publish in a local or community paper. Not surprisingly, they received no comments, and in August 2012, the agency found that C&H Hog Farms would have no significant environmental impact and guaranteed 90% of another $1.3 million loan.
In a letter from the Buffalo National River Superintendent, Kevin Cheri, to the Farm Service Agency, Cheri claimed this finding was “very weak from an environmental point of view.” Despite the fact that the Farm Service Agency’s evaluation identified the National Park Service as a cooperating agency, Cheri made clear that the National Park Service had not been informed about the environmental review until after it was complete. The letter identified 45 problems with the evaluation.
Because of the minimal public communication about this assessment, few people living near the C&H property realized what had been approved on the backs of federal taxpayers before it was too late, and the farm began operating in 2013.
Judge Marshall’s finding that these federal agencies are liable for their wanton disregard of environmental safeguards and inadequate impact evaluations confirms a standard that should apply when future factory farms look for federal support. If the ruling is not appealed, agencies around the country may be called to meet environmental standards that have not been effectively applied to loan guarantees for these facilities. This decision is an important step forward in preserving the Buffalo National River, and a poignant reminder of the public’s crucial role in protecting communities and the environment.