Ig­nor­ing Big Creek

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son Mike Master­son is a long­time Arkansas jour­nal­ist. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

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.”

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