By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
MALVERN — Roughly 25 miles upstream from Arkadelphia on the Ouachita River is a sawmill operation many say is responsible for polluting several miles of a creek tributary. Officials in Arkadelphia say local residents should not be alarmed about the recent news of the massive petrochemical spill.
All fingers point to Anthony Timberlands, Inc., for allowing thousands of gallons of hydraulic fluids — and some heavy metals — to flow into an 8-mile stretch of creek that pours into the Ouachita River. The Ouachita River is the source of potable water for residents in Arkadelphia and surrounding communities, its intake pump station visible from DeSoto Bluff. The water that is pumped into Arkadelphia’s water system is treated at a facility near the river bank before it travels to water towers and, eventually, household faucets.
In August, Hot Spring County landowners began probing the cause of why their bovine were dying off, eventually sniffing out their cattle’s water source as a stagnant, sludge-filled creek. Since then, multiple state and federal agencies have gotten involved with hopes of finding the answers.
About 100 people filled the pews of a country church in Malvern on Thursday evening for a community meeting intended to address the situation and to seek answers from government officials. Agencies represented included the Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the state veterinarian, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and Cattlemen’s Association, as well as Hot Spring County officials, Malvern officials and state lawmakers representing the area.
Not present at the meeting were representatives of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, the agency tasked with determining what chemicals have been found in water samples. With no ADEQ representatives present, there were no experts to weigh in on the chemistry behind the water samples, leaving many questions unanswered.
Nor were there any company officials from ATI present, although there were some sawmill employees in attendance. ATI announced in a press release that it would cease operations for a month to begin the remediation process. The company also made a bold statement that it may permanently discontinue doing business in Malvern, as president Steven Anthony said ATI “will evaluate its options going forward and whether residents and local government officials desire the 180-plus jobs and $12 million of payroll that the facility brings.”
The company is maintaining its innocence in the matter. In a memo that was said to be included with employees’ most recent paycheck, ATI said its stormwater discharge “accounts for only a tiny fraction of the water” found downstream of its plant — “not enough to sicken a mouse, much less kill a cow.”
One employee, a supervisor, pleaded with the crowd to “just give us a chance” to clean up the spillage. “We’re trying our best to get the situation under control.” Several in attendance spoke at once, with many voicing they didn’t want to lose the mill but rather for it to be a good steward to the environment.
Among the heavy metals found in water samples taken from a creek downstream of the mill were chromium, lead and zinc, in addition to the hydraulic fluids that made its way into the tributary. It was learned at the meeting that ATI in 2021 had purchased 134,250 gallons of hydraulic fluid, which the mill uses throughout the entire facility. Any minor spills were cleaned by applying sawdust, which later would be burned to power the mill’s boiler plant. In that same year the plant burned off an estimated 146,000 gallons of diesel fuel — roughly 12,000 gallons more than the hydraulic fluid purchased.
“Where did it all go?” rhetorized Austin Williams, a landowner whose 500-plus head of cattle comprise roughly 1/3 of the livestock affected by the spill. An estimated 1,700 head of cattle continue grazing in pastures along the 8 miles of contaminated creek water, but their owners are unable to market or consume them. The same metals found in water samples were also discovered in liver samples from cows that have since died, apparently from drinking water from the contaminated creek.
Williams emphasized that whistleblowers’ intentions have not been to shut down the plant. “However, when you are told by the EPA to cease adding chemicals that impact waterways and you continue to do that, then it becomes a problem.”
Some officials have admitted that the ATI spill has been the largest-scale environmental hazard they’ve witnessed. Among them are state Sen. Alan Clark, who vowed at the meeting to promptly take the matter up to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders upon her inauguration. “I’ve not seen anything like this,” Clark said.
Meanwhile in Arkadelphia, city officials say the spill had no effect on the local water supply. “We have been monitoring the situation from afar as it is not impacting our water supply in Arkadelphia,” City Manager Gary Brinkley told The Arkadelphian in an email. Arkadelphia Water Utilities became abreast of the upstream situation in September 2022 — the same time ADEQ and Hot Spring County officials were made aware.
“We continue to monitor our water source and to date there have been no issues,” Brinkley said. “Our staff will continue their due diligence to protect our area residents.” Asked if any corrective measures were taken to ensure no contaminants made their way into the water supply, Brinkley said water department staff “already test [samples] daily, thus no additional measures are needed at this time.” He added that utilities manager David Green and his staff have attended all the public meetings to date and are on notification lists to be advised of any situation that arises in Hot Spring County. Green was present at Thursday’s meeting.