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Hog farm near the Buffalo River stirs controversy 

Critics say farm was carelessly approved and threatens watershed and community. Farmers say they followed law and permit protects environment.

The community of Mt. Judea sits on a hill along Arkansas 123, the scenic highway that snakes through the Ozarks in Newton County. This is the country that people have in mind when they think of the "Natural State" — clear rivers and creeks, craggy rocks, colorful cliffs and bluffs, springs, sinkholes, caves.

It is mostly quiet in Mt. Judea, save for when motorcyclists come roaring down 123 to take in the scenery. The people are protective of their small community and suspicious of outsiders and the federal government. "Everybody knows everybody and most everybody's related," they say.

Big Creek, one of the largest tributaries of the Buffalo National River, runs up the valley below Mt. Judea's blink-and-you'll-miss-it town center: a school, a general store, the Eagle Rock Cafe. On a hill across the valley, around a mile away as the crow flies, is C&H Hog Farm, the first facility in the state to get a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit. The permit allows C&H to house 6,503 hogs: 2,500 sows, 3 boars, and another 4,000 piglets, which at three weeks old will be trucked off to another facility to be fattened for slaughter. The hogs belong to Cargill, by revenue the largest privately held company in the nation and the sole customer for C&H.

The farm has turned this quiet town into the center of a very noisy fight. Critics say it poses unacceptable risks to the Buffalo River watershed.

"I was alarmed about it for a couple of reasons," said Gordon Watkins, a farmer who lives on the Little Buffalo River, the next valley over from Big Creek, and the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a citizens group that formed in reaction to C&H's permit. "One was the size and the scale of this thing and its proximity to Big Creek and the town of Mt. Judea and the school, and of course the Buffalo River."

"What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it," Watkins said. "It had been done very quietly with no fanfare and even some neighbors of the property didn't know about it until after the fact."

Last week, a coalition formed by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Ozark Society sued the two federal agencies that backed the loan to build the facility, claiming that the Farm Services Agency and the Small Business Administration failed to do adequate environmental assessments and offer adequate public notice. The coalition has also been sharply critical of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the state permitting process that approved the facility, though it hasn't sued the state so far.

The controversy centers on the inevitable byproduct of the farm: pig crap. Based on C&H's nutrient management plan (NMP), the facility will generate more than 2 million gallons of manure and wastewater per year. The waste is first collected in 2-foot-deep concrete pits below the animals. Once the shallow pits, diluted with water, are filled, the waste drains into two large man-made storage ponds. Eventually, as the ponds fill, C&H will remove liquid waste and, in an agreement with local landowners, apply it as fertilizer on more than 600 acres of surrounding fields.

C&H, which began operations in spring, is still gearing up to full capacity. It currently houses around 2,000 hogs — gilts, not yet fully grown into sows — and they have yet to fertilize any fields.

Ten of the fields that will be sprayed with hog waste are adjacent to Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo River less than six miles away.

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