Arkansas liquid waste rule change troubles environmentalists

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Environmentalists fear a proposed Arkansas law that would prohibit new complaints against animal waste permits previously authorized by the state will gut their their effort to fight a farm that is authorized to house 6,500 pigs near the nation's first scenic river.

As the Arkansas Legislature opened a special session Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw told the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee his bill only addresses concerns among banks and farmers that perpetual challenges to animal waste permits could make some operations bad investments.

Michael Grappe, the director of special projects for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, said that when a farm seeks modifications to a permit, the entire process shouldn't reopen.

"The bill before you provides some guarantees" against challenges from environmentalists and other third parties, Grappe told the panel. "You cannot sit there and dream up new things to challenge a permit."

Throughout an hour-long hearing, Wardlaw and the panel's chairman said the bill had nothing to do with the C&H Hog Farm, which operates near a tributary of the Buffalo National River.

Some were skeptical.

"I will not address the 800-pound hog in the room," Gordon Watkins, the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said as he opened his testimony against the bill. His fear, he said, was that the bill could cut off his group's current effort to close the farm over fears of manure runoff.

"If there is some effort to protect C&H, we will come back to hold them accountable," he said after the bill passed unanimously on a voice vote.

Congress declared the Buffalo the nation's first scenic river in 1972. C&H in 2012 won approval for a federal waste permit no longer administered by the state, and the company's recent bid to replace it with one issued by the state failed in January when regulators said the farm had not studied groundwater flow or developed an emergency plan.

One of the farm's owners, Jason Henson, told KYTV in Springfield, Mo., in January: "For them to issue you a permit, and then to deny you a permit, to us seems very unfair and unjust."

C&H continues to operate as it appeals the rejection of its new permit.

Under Wardlaw's bill, if a permit-holder seeks only to modify a permit, the entire case isn't reopened.

"We're not taking away any public comment period on the front end," Wardlaw told the panel.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who put the issue on the legislators' agenda when he announced the special session Monday, said he believed the bill had appropriate limits.

"C&H Farm had a federal permit. What happened was a lot of the farmers in the community got concerned that, 'Well, if C&H Hog Farm is going to be denied continuation of their permit, then somehow it's going to impact my right to farm,'" Hutchinson said Tuesday. "This legislation ... reduces their fear that somehow they're not going to be able to continue in operation."

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Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.

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