A consultant hired by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality presented findings at the agency’s headquarters Thursday of subsurface tests made at a controversial swine farm near the Buffalo National River. ADEQ and environmental advocates are still mulling over the study’s details.
A group of some 100 ADEQ officials, concerned citizens and other stakeholders listened to a presentation by Tom Huetter, a geologist and project manager from Harbor Environmental and Safety. The Little Rock-based company was hired by the ADEQ to study underground samples collected from C&H Hog Farms. In operation since 2013, C&H and its 6,500- swine facilities lie near Big Creek near the town of Mount Judea in Newton County. Big Creek is a tributary of the Buffalo National River. For about 20 minutes, Huetter listed off findings using a power point slide show.
The study was to address concerns that contaminants from C&H were seeping into the soil and groundwater from two waste storage ponds at the site, and spreading into the revered river’s watershed.
Videos posted on the ADEQ’s website show workers collecting soil samples by drilling a 120 foot borehole at the site. Harbor used these samples for its report, which was made available on the ADEQ's website late Thursday afternoon.
A 2015 electrical resistivity test by a group of University of Arkansas researchers, known as the Big Creek Extension and Research Team, had suggested possible leakage in pathways of limestone bedrock far below the surface. In the presentation, Huetter said most concentrations of sampled minerals and other elements showed up at levels consistent with what is found in surrounding areas.
The Harbor consultants compared some of the samples to those found by the United State Geological Survey in a 2004 soil study of Newton County. Harbor also tested for E. coli, and found no evidence of it below ground. A couple of audience members volunteered questions during the presentation about the drilling and sampling process, but ADEQ spokeswoman Donnally Davis intervened.
“I’m sorry. This is a presentation. It’s not a public hearing, not a public meeting. Tom is here. He wants to give the report to the public, to ADEQ and the Governor’s office. But for him to do that we can’t keep stopping for questions,” she said.
Davis later directed those with questions to write to the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. Huetter continued to list off findings; at first glance, the study showed little out of the ordinary. Though by presentation’s end many ADEQ officials and other audience members were left guessing as to what Harbor had concluded.
The prohibition on questions during and after the presentation also unnerved Gordon Watkins of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. His group has spearheaded efforts to explore the ecological consequences of C&H Hog farms.
“I thought it was a dog and pony show,” he said. “We were led to believe there would be a question and answer period and it’s a little disturbing that they would allow us to ask any questions of Harbor in particular and we have no idea who will be answering questions online.”
Watkins did express some relief that the presentation seemed to indicate relatively little waste appeared to be leaking below ground. But he maintains a skeptical stance.
“There was very little interpretation provided today. We have experts that we’ll be depending on to look at this report in detail and see if there’s evidence of leakage or not and I think it’s important to keep in mind this was one single hole that was drilled,” Watkins said.
Additionally, Watkins said the consultant’s presentation “glossed over” mention of a subsurface void encountered at the 25 foot mark of the drilling. Watkins said that even if no evidence turns up that waste from the farm’s ponds is leaking below ground, a bigger concern for him is the three million gallons of swine waste spread on 600 acres of agricultural land along Big Creek on a yearly basis.
After the Harbor presentation, ADEQ Director Becky Keogh answered reporters’ questions. She said it was too early to draw conclusions about the Harbor study.
“I’d like to take the time to fully review that report and have my trained geologists and engineers review the report and give me recommendations about what they believe is occurring at the site and… provide me with the information so I can then go ahead and follow up with any report or recommendations to the governor and to the public about what would be the next appropriate steps,” she said.
Keogh also addressed concerns about the prohibition of a question and answer time.
“We felt like answering questions now or putting the consultant in that role to be able to make definitive determinations was not the purpose of today’s presentation. We do want to get back to that point. But I think today it was more about learning for the first time what the data is saying,” she said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s spokesman J.R. Davis, who also attended the presentation, noted ADEQ made an effort to be transparent by releasing Harbor’s findings to the public the same day the agency received them. It’s unclear when or if the ADEQ or the Governor’s office will take action based on the study. The U of A Big Creek Research team is still working on a five-year study of C&H. The Governor’s recently created Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee is to hold its first meeting in December to discuss ways to improve environmental conditions in the National River’s watershed.
This post was edited on 12/3/16.