JASPER, AR (KNWA) - The Buffalo National River holds a special place in Arkansans' hearts, and when a factory hog farm was built less than six miles away, concerns of contamination drew a huge outcry.
Now, two teams of scientists are working to protect the water quality of one of the Natural State's biggest attractions.
"There's a lot of passion about keeping this river the first scenic river and keeping it pristine," says Andrew Sharpley, a professor from the University of Arkansas Agriculture Department. "There's a lot of pressure on the state to keep it pristine."
The truth of how the C & H Hog Farm may or may not impact the Buffalo River watershed isn't clear, but the battle between the farm and its opponents is raging.
"We're being attacked by the media daily, and the majority of the people is not interested in the truth," says co-owner Jason Henson. "When this first started, they sent a petition around, 'Sign this paper if you don't want to swim in hog poop on the Buffalo.' I woulda signed the paper myself."
Jason Henson is a co-owner of the hog farm, and says he's operating within state laws. Two lagoons on the property hold the animal waste, which is eventually spread across nearby fields.
"These fields have been fertilized for years and years," Henson says. "We have rules and regulations on how much we can put out, and when we can put it out, and how we can put it out."
Van Brahana is worried the state laws are stacked in favor of big agriculture, and ignore the underlying geography of the area.
"The argument that we followed all the rules, that's a true statement," he says. "The fact of the matter is though, from a scientific standpoint, those were weighted strongly in favor of factory farming."
Brahana, a recently retired hydro-geologist from the University of Arkansas, says porous, permeable limestone sits under a thin layer of soil. The formation allows water to quickly move underground, and to unexpected places.
"It goes down and into the rock," he says. "Because it's underground, we can't see exactly where it is."
He's gathered a group of volunteers to conduct a dye tracing study, to find out how long it takes for fluids to travel from this spot near the farm, to Big Creek and the Buffalo.
"We want to have an assessment that this particular facility has a degree of safety built in, so that we don't contaminate the people who live downstream," he says. "It will allow us to determine where the output sources are so that when we put monitor stations in, we can be very precise."
The Hensons aren't happy to see Brahana anywhere near Newton County.
"We believe that they are doing a biased study," he says.
Sharpley, and his team from the Agriculture Department are also monitoring the water quality around the farm, at the state's request.
"We are measuring above and below the farm on Big Creek," Sharpley says. "It's a beautiful place, and the more you are out here, the more you see the importance of this river to the local community."
Automatic samplers collect water when it rises, and the team drilled holes in 3 of the 17 fields where Henson will spread the waste.
"We're monitoring that, and we also have some wells up around the lagoons to see if there is leakage because there was concern about that," Sharpley says. "The principal behind his application plan is he's putting enough of the nutrients on when the soil is dry enough, that the plants are going to soak those nutrients up and there's no excess. In reality, this is what we're hoping to see."
Sharpley says the strategy should give a warning if the management plan isn't working.
"Once it's in the creek, it's an issue and it's too late," he says. "Hopefully, the way we're doing things, we might be able to see before it actually gets there."
Sharpley has also been accused of bias.
"We were asked to do this, and although we're the division of Ag. we kind of represent every stakeholder in the state," he says. "We're staying totally impartial in what we are doing to have the science tell the story."
Van admits he may have a personal bias, but says it won't affect his results.
"As a scientist I try to describe things very accurately so that meaningful decisions for the general public can be made," he says. "Andrew will do some work. I will do some work and we'll cross reference and that's the way science works."
Although Henson doesn't trust Brahana, he says he will listen to science, even if it means changing his operation.
"We're nine generations of living in this area," Henson says. "We of all people want to make sure that the environment is not hurt at all."
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