By Brian Thompson, Ozark Society President

This recently approved legislation is about moving the permitting of hog farms from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC). Back in 2019, there was similar legislation introduced as a result of the C&H Hog Farms controversy. ANRC is a farmer friendly agency established in dustbowl days to assist farmers with the conservation of topsoil. They serve an important purpose, but they are more aligned with farmer’s interests than evaluating permits or conducting enforcement. The goal was to have ANRC rewrite the regulations to be more favorable to hog farms, possibly in a way that would protect C&H. That early legislation fell apart when EPA expressed an unwelcome interest.

This year, HB1706 was introduced with the same purpose as the failed 2019 bill, in that it would move permitting from ADEQ to ANRC. The new bill was sponsored by DeAnn Vaught of District 87 (Horatio). Representative Vaught, a senior house member serving on several committees, also raises hogs as part of her farming operation. Surprisingly, the Governor’s Office did not support Vaught’s bill, primarily because ANRC would be required to hire their own legal, geological, and engineering personnel to support regulatory promulgation and enforcement, essentially creating an expensive staffing redundancy with ADEQ. There might have also been concerns that EPA would, once again, take an unwelcome interest in revisiting existing regulations. The Governor’s Office chose to amend the bill rather than oppose it outright. Key language in the amendment noted that The Division of Agriculture/ANRC has authority over all liquid animal waste systems “in consultation with the Division of Environmental Quality.” It is our understanding that this “in consultation” phrase, essentially maintains the permit decision making with ADEQ, at least in the eyes of this governor. There are still procedural questions to be resolved in regard to the flow of permit applications and enforcement.

The fact that permitting regulations are unlikely to change is good news, but the language of this law is subject to interpretation. Under a future administration, ANRC might easily be allowed to take a more proactive role and promulgate new hog farm rules that could be more permissive and less transparent. The good news is that current permitting is unlikely to change for now. But it is clear that there is strong legislative support to allow existing regulations to be watered down, if not outright eliminated.