We have some hopeful signs of justice on the environmental front. Efforts to preserve the waters of the Buffalo National River are ongoing, the E.P.A. has introduced its Clean Water Rule, and egg-laying hens will be able to live better lives in California. Justice is many things, but essentially it’s this: You should be able to be who you are, do what you want or need to do, and get what you want or need as long as you do no harm. “As long as you do no harm” is the main issue. Hence, in history’s first code of law, Hammurabi said that the first role of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.
The saga of once again trying to save the Buffalo National River continues – this time from being polluted by hog wastes. Here’s a brief reminder of what brought on the current tragedy: Without consulting with the rangers at the national river, the Department of the Interior, or asking for public comments, in the spring of 2013 the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality quietly approved a Cargill-owned hog factory in the vicinity of the Buffalo River. Because there was some question whether the E.P.A. could regulate tributaries, nobody was held accountable!
At the end of April 2015, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission extended a ban on future medium and large-sized hog factories in the river’s environs for a third 180-day period. A permanent ban is such a no-brainer that it’s impossible to understand why they won’t end any future threats to the river once and for all. Even if they eventually do the right thing, Cargill’s C & H Hog Farm will still be in operation on Big Creek, which flows six miles downstream into the Buffalo.
The best hope to get Cargill to relocate its hog factory to a less destructive site is a ruling in October 2014 by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall. He found that the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency’s agreement to insure the hog factory was based on an insufficient environmental impact study. This violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The new study may take up to a year to complete, but the analysis may prevent C & H from getting a loan guarantee. (However, Cargill, Inc., is the second largest private corporation in America after Koch Industries, so C & H may not need that loan guarantee.) Meanwhile, hog waste will continue to be spread on fields where it will leach into the soil and into the extremely porous rock foundation of that area, seep into Big Creek, and meander into the Buffalo. If you plan to canoe, fish, or swim along the Buffalo, the sooner the better.
We got really good news on May 27: President Obama announced the much-needed and long-awaited E.P.A Clean Water Rule restoring the people’s authority to limit pollution in our nation’s rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. Praising the action, Margie Alt, the executive director of Environment America, observed, “Our rivers, lakes, and drinking water can only be clean if the streams that flow into them are clean.” Had this been done sooner, we likely would have been spared that hog farm on a tributary to the Buffalo.
Unfortunately, we have a majority party controlling Congress that is mindlessly hostile to anything environmental and virtually everything Obama. The GOP, “Guardians of Polluters,” will go to great lengths to protect property owners’ “freedom” to pollute our waters regardless of who, what, or how many are adversely affected. As you might expect, in my home state, all six of Arkansas’s Republican delegates to Washington are opposed to the new rule.
Factory “farms” are not only inhumane but also environmental and health nightmares by nature, but there’s good news for egg-laying hens in California – and maybe elsewhere. A state law was approved by a landslide vote in 2008 and finally took effect this year. Hens must be freed from cramped cages. They must be allowed to stand up, lie down, spread their wings, and turn around with touching another hen. In a civilized society, these are the absolute minimum standards that should be expected.
An additional law requires that egg producers outside California must meet the same standards if they want to sell their eggs in California. Bravo! You would think that every state during the last six years would have been rushing to enact the same or better standards – it’s certainly the moral thing to do. Predictably, many egg producers thought it would be cheaper for them to file suit. Happily, all challenges have been dismissed except for two that are still on appeal, including one by several state attorneys general.
The reaction here in Arkansas was really embarrassing. Dan Douglas, a Republican state representative from Bentonville, estimated that 90 % of Arkansas’s egg producers don’t meet California’s criteria. Instead of proposing that Arkansas’s producers clean up their acts, in March 2015 he introduced a bill that would ban all California wines from being sold within the state (Arkansas gets 90 % of its wine from California).
Douglas said later that his bill was merely a protest against government regulations. He insisted that he didn’t think it would pass, but what else did he expect from his Fox-Republican-TEA Partiers? The Republican- controlled state house approved it by a landslide! He had to pull the bill from further consideration to prevent its likely passage in the Republican-controlled senate.
Sadly, whenever it costs money to do the right thing, greed wins over justice and morality nearly every time. We should take note of what James A. Michener said when he personally introduced the televised version of “Centennial,” his monumental book on the expansion of America. He said that the settlement of our nation was a big story and “a reminder that during the few years allotted to each of us, we are the guardians of the earth. We are at once the custodians of our heritage and the caretakers of our future.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published June 16, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.