Alert: Buffalo River power play looming at legislature | Arkansas Blog

Monday, February 26, 2018

Alert: Buffalo River power play looming at legislature

Posted By on Mon, Feb 26, 2018 at 7:43 AM

click to enlarge BUFFALO RIVER: A hog farm nearby is important to the Arkansas Farm Bureau. - SIERRA CLUB
  • Sierra Club
  • BUFFALO RIVER: A hog farm nearby is important to the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

The Arkansas legislative budget session seems likely to end on schedule in mid-March with little fanfare, apart from some special interest legislation for a voucher-like program to transfer state tax money to private school tuition. Special ed kids? More parole officers? Can't afford those things.

But the bigger news is what's in store for the special legislative session to be called immediately after this session's end — good news for legislators like Sen. Trent Garner, who run up handsome untaxed per diem payments for lurking at the Capitol doing mischief year-round.

One battle is well-known: What will the legislature do to address pharmacists' unhappiness about reimbursement rates for those covered by the Medicaid expansion program, particularly those (most of them) covered by Arkansas Blue Cross, which uses CVS as manager of pharmacy reimbursements. Druggists say they are losing money on many prescriptions and CVS is giving better deals to its own pharmacies. Proposals are floating, but a solid, specific solution hasn't yet emerged. The irony of a Republican governor and legislature looking for new ways to regulate the private insurance business is an entertaining feature of the debate. Pharmacists, too, tend to normally fall on the conservative, anti-government end of the spectrum.

But I'm burying the lead. Word comes that the powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau is lining up votes for legislation to override a state  finding that denied a new permit for the C and H Hog Farm (correction the ruling came from ADEQ director, not administrative judge) in the Buffalo River watershed in Newton County. The Farm Bureau sees the shutdown of C and H, still operating on appeal, as the first step down a slippery slope for others.

How do you override the ruling without effectively ending Department of Environmental Quality review in general? Good question. Or maybe that's the idea.

The scheme reportedly includes a sop — money to continue University of Arkansas studies of effects of the hog operation on pollution in the Buffalo and its tributaries. Factory hog farm advocates contend the science shows the farm isn't harming the Buffalo. The groups fighting the hog farm say otherwise. They think the UA researchers are beholden to the agriculture industry (Tyson Foods is a major benefactor of the agri department, for example, but it has no operations to speak of in the Buffalo River watershed and isn't aligned with the Farm Bureau politically) and that the research to date has eliminated as "outliers" findings of increased pollution in water following heavy rain, a time when field-spread hog waste is most likely to cause runoff of pollutants and an important data point for studying stream pollution. If they ever get a hearing, environmental advocates have scientists of their own. But the legislative action could nullify future hearings.

Can the Farm Bureau be stopped? It's rare. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has reportedly acquiesced to the hog farm decision override in a special session if the backers can demonstrate two-thirds support, the vote needed to broaden the call of a special session. They may be close to having those votes in hand, according to my source in the environmental community.

If they succeed, does it open the door to an explosion of factory hog farming in the Buffalo River watershed and other sensitive locations?

UPDATE: I received this response on the rumors from Steve Eddington, vice president for public relations at the Farm Bureau:

I tracked down our government affairs folks on this, and they have affirmed that we continue to explore a variety of ways to defend the property rights of Arkansas farmers and ranchers and to protect the livelihood of the families of C&H Hog Farm. However, as this process is ongoing, we will not discuss any specific details at this time.

Opponents have a talking point:

C and H feeds hogs owned by a Brazilian conglomerate to produce pork to sell in China.

Brazil gets the dollars. China gets the pork chops. Arkansas and the Buffalo River get the hog shit.

Yes, C and H Hog Farm does create jobs. Somebody has to slop, and then shovel after, those 6,000 hogs. It's no small task — millions of gallons of urine and feces.

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