Ignoring Big Creek
You’d think our state Department of Environmental Quality (wheeze) eventually would overcome the need to play politics when it comes to the controversial hog factory it quickly and quietly allowed into the Buffalo National River watershed four years ago.
After all, this agency allegedly exists to enhance environmental quality rather than lobby for the benefits of domestic animal husbandry.
Yet it continues down the path of protecting and promoting the factory with 6,500 swine. It’s a place that continuously sprays millions of gallons of raw hog waste onto a limited number of fields along and around Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo flowing just six miles downstream.
In the latest example of the department’s backflips to accommodate C&H Hog Farms at Mount Judea, the agency omitted Big Creek from the state’s latest federal list of “impaired waterbodies” even though extensive testing has shown that stream is more than deserving to be near the top of that EPA-required listing.
Many people believe as I do: The Department of Environmental Quality hierarchy (and perhaps above them) find reasons not to include Big Creek because being cited as impaired would mean the agency would have to aggressively discover the source of the documented contamination. And who knows? That investigation might lead right to this misplaced hog factory operation that has been so championed politically by the agency, the Farm Bureau and Pork Producers.
So the department submitted its 303(d) list of streams to the EPA minus Big Creek. And the agency seemed pleasantly relieved when the EPA approved their submission after stalling for four years. Such lists are required from states every two years under the Clean Water Act.
A news account by reporter Emily Walkenhorst said the EPA until this month had not acted on our state’s past four consecutive impaired-waters lists. The EPA finally took action after approving and disapproving of elements of Arkansas’ water-quality standards last fall, said Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh.
Keogh said she was “pleased” with the action, while Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the decision to remove many of the state’s waters once listed as impaired underscores efforts to “protect and enhance our natural environment.”
When it comes to adequately protecting and enhancing the Buffalo National River, I suspect many Arkansans strongly disagree.
Fisheries scientist Teresa Turk has been studying contamination in Big Creek and the Buffalo for years. “I’m disappointed science did not prevail in the face of large corporate agriculture politics on the state and federal level. The state ignored high E. coli levels collected by the Big Creek Research and Extension Team that met the definition of impairment in Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission Regulation 2. In addition, low dissolved oxygen readings exceeding standards were recorded by the U.S. Geologic Survey on Big Creek in 15-minute intervals. That provided greater resolution and accuracy than any other monitored streams in Arkansas. Yet [the Department of Environmental Quality] stated they didn’t have a way to use or assess such high quality and frequent information.”
Turk said for practically all other streams, the state agency doesn’t have enough relevant information. Yet in the case of Big Creek, where the data showed impairment, it declined to use that information and declared instead that Big Creek didn’t have sufficient data. This is a stream that has the more data collected than any other place in Arkansas.
The department’s “decision to not list Big Creek undermines its credibility as a reputable scientific agency,” Turk continued. “In this case, politics has trumped good science and good logic. You can’t spread almost 3 million gallons of pig poop containing pathogens and phosphorus every year in a karst area next to a stream and not have serious stream degradation.”
Duane Woltjen with the Ozark Highlands Trail Association told me Keogh responded to the Buffalo National River’s request for an impaired listing for Big Creek with the same “insufficient evidence” excuse when the river sought that designation months ago.
“As I recall, the years of evidence we have was from the Buffalo National Park lab, which Keogh claimed was not certified for the first few years before becoming certified two years ago. “But [the Department of Environmental Quality] says five years of consistent and persistent impairment is required to be officially listed. Under that criteria, this means two years are down, three to go, for [the agency] to admit Big Creek is impaired,” said Woltjen.
Geosciences professor emeritus John Van Brahana, who more than any other has studied water quality and subsurface flow around the hog factory since it began operating in 2013, believes omitting Big Creek “appears to be a deliberate ignoring of facts presented by many researchers who have responded to the external expert team hired by the Big Creek Research and Extension Team to address the karst and groundwater affecting Big Creek and the Buffalo.”
“The data we have from Big Creek, and especially the springs and groundwater that drain the spreading fields that flow into Big Creek and other Buffalo tributaries show anomalously high values of isotopes of dissolved trace metals (extreme high flow values), E. coli values in ephemeral streams draining into Big Creek during storm events, extremely high algae concentrations weeks to months after the spreading of feces and urine … and dye-tracing results that showed travel during high-water conditions to contiguous stream basins and the Buffalo from sites near spreading fields.
“Most Arkansas high school students whose parents are real farmers would be well aware of problems caused by industrial agriculture to water quality downstream, although [the Department of Environmental Quality] has developed a recent record of ignoring these facts by altering rules and regulations,” said claims Brahana, saying the department “raised the ante by requiring five years of data for an ‘impaired streams’ listing, thereby buying time and satisfying the ag-industrial lobby.”
These occurrences don’t protect Big Creek or the Buffalo, says Brahana, nor do they follow peer-reviewed science that has raised a multitude of questions. He asks, “when science conducted by numerous independent, interdisciplinary scientists indicates problems exist, what’s the honest rationale behind Arkansas’ protective agency of the state’s environment requiring five years of data before it addresses or fixes it?”
Finally, Gordon Watkins, who heads the Buffalo National River Watershed Alliance, said his organization was “disappointed but not surprised by [the Department of Environmental Quality]’s failure to list Big Creek as impaired when facts show otherwise.”
He was surprised EPA Director Scott Pruitt visited the state and appeared before a select group of ag interests at the Poultry Commission offices rather than in public. “The signal it sends is not encouraging to those who feel Big Ag is having an inordinate negative impact on water quality, and suggests it will only get worse,” said Watkins. “But we’ve been active participants in current [department] methodology meetings.
“And we just submitted Big Creek data, as did the National Park Service, for the 2018 Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report. That data will be used for the EPA’s 2018 303(d) list. We’re hopeful [the Department of Environmental Quality] won’t eliminate this data on another technicality and Big Creek finally will be rightly acknowledged as being impaired, and that corrective action will be taken.”