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Environmentalists battle Cargill’s Arkansas hog operations

Minnesota-based Cargill has been taking heat from conservationists, including some in Minnesota, for one of its contract hog farms in Arkansas.

Some of the anger over the facility comes from the fact that it's located on a tributary just six miles from the Buffalo River, an area they gets special protection from the National Park Service, much like the St. Croix on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

The Buffalo River, with its clear water surrounded by spectacular cliffs, is the Arkansas version of the Boundary Waters, said Jack Stewart, vice president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance in Arkansas.

"It's our treasure," he said. "It belongs to all the people of the country."

Stewart has rallied other activists concerned that manure runoff from Cargill-owned hogs could foul the river. They've gotten Minnesotans to join their campaign and send letters to Cargill, asking the commodities giant to relocate the operation.

Stewart, who was in the Twin Cities recently to encourage action, says people here should care about where a Minnesota company is operating.

"There are plenty of other places in Arkansas which would probably welcome the facility," Stewart said. "You know the people of Mt. Judea, about all they have, really, is an abundance of clean water and beautiful scenery. We don't think that, since it's a national river, that Arkansans should have to fight this battle alone. We need to band together when our national treasures are threatened."

The message has resonated with members of Minnesota's chapter of the National Audubon Society. About 840 Minnesotans have sent letters to Cargill, said chapter director Matthew Anderson

"We've got an agricultural heritage as a state so we understand things like runoff and pollution and the impact it can have, and we know that we can do better," he said. "We value the companies that we have the most pride in, like Cargill, and we want them to continue to live up to the pride we invest in them."

So far, Cargill officials say they have no plans to move. The farm is owned by three local families, and Cargill owns the animals, said spokesman Mike Martin.

"The farm families have done nothing wrong," he said. "The concern is about a what-if scenario that may never take place, and the engineering on this farm goes well beyond anything that's required for environmental safeguards either by the federal government or the state of Arkansas."

Martin says Cargill is listening to the concerns and has reached out to opponents to see if there's a way to add more safeguards at the farm to quell their fears.

The controversy has been big news in Arkansas, not just because the farm is near a nationally-designated river. It's also the biggest hog farm in the state with 2,500 sows and up to 4,000 piglets.

After the farm began operating, opponents pushed policy makers to prevent more feedlots of its size from being constructed within the Buffalo River watershed, said Ryan McGeeney, who covers northwest Arkansas for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

There's now a moratorium, and the governor appointed a study group to monitor water quality, but McGeeny said state officials aren't talking about moving the existing farm.

"There's no one in official capacity saying that that's likely to happen or that that is even being considered," he said.

At the center of the controversy is the geology in the region the hog farm calls home. It's karst, which is characterized by features like sinkholes and places where water can seep quickly through porous limestone. If that water is polluted, it can impact groundwater and surface water more easily than other places.

That's an issue that should be familiar to Minnesotans, because karst also covers much of southeastern Minnesota, where hog and dairy farms are common. In 2000, local opponents of a proposed large dairy farm in Fillmore County challenged the project, and it was built elsewhere.