A panel of Arkansas lawmakersrecentlyy rejected proposed rules that would permanently ban medium- and large-scale hog farms from the Buffalo River watershed.
The Legislative Council's Administrative Rules Subcommittee voted not to approve the proposed revisions to Rules Five and Six presented to lawmakers by the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality.
Lawmakers expressed concerns that the moratorium would create what Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, called "a chilling effect" on agriculture in Arkansas, and raised the idea that similar measures could be enacted to encompass other watersheds within the state.
From his perspective, Rice said, there is concern among members of the public about a lack of due process with regard to the permanent moratorium.
Becky Keogh, the Department of Energy and Environment secretary, stressed that the proposed permanent ban maintains protections for the Buffalo River and allows current farming opportunities to continue.
Conservationists in Arkansas fought to close C&H Hog Farms, an operation near the Buffalo River, over fears of possible water contamination there. The hog farm was bought out by the state and closed in January.
In 2014, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission placed a temporary ban on new medium- and large-scale hog farms within the watershed after an outcry from environmentalists because of C&H Hog Farms. The temporary moratorium was extended repeatedly, including a five-year extension granted in 2015.
The proposed permanent moratorium had the backing of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said he was directing Keogh and environmental regulators to make the moratorium permanent when he announced the buyout deal with C&H Hog Farms last summer.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, highlighted what she described as a lack of infrastructure at the Buffalo River, such as poorly maintained, unpaved roads for the booming tourism. She said the state is "reaping the consequences."
Although Irvin acknowledged the hog farm's permit never should never have been granted, she said there is other work to be done to fix the situation at the Buffalo National River.
"This is not the problem," she said.
"If I believed in my heart that this was the mitigating factor, then I would absolutely vote for this, but I don't believe that because I've experienced it, I've lived it, I know it, and I see what's happening," she continued.
In some ways, the decision on whether to make the moratorium permanent is about the future of the watershed instead of any existing hog farm. There are no medium- or large-scale hog farms with permits to operate in the watershed at the moment, a fact Shane Khoury, chief counsel for the Department of Energy and Environment, explained to legislators.
The moratorium would prohibit confined animal-feeding operations with 750 or more swine weighing 55 pounds or more, or operations with 3,000 or more swine weighing less than 55 pounds.
Environmental advocates with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society had pushed for the permanent ban.
"I have to say, I was really disappointed that that committee can't see how the Buffalo River is unique in this state," said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.
Lawmakers want to argue the "slippery slope," Watkins said. "'What river is going to be next? Pretty soon it's going to be every river in the state.' And that's just not the case."
Watkins said advocates want the moratorium memorialized in regulations so that as years go by and administrations change, the Buffalo River will continue to be protected.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau has consistently opposed the permanent moratorium.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.