By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

At first glance, the Ouachita River likely appears to visitors as nothing but a brown stream, flowing sluggishly beneath worn bridges on the outskirts of dying Southwest Arkansas towns. 

I’m here to tell you otherwise, and to shame anyone guilty of polluting what should be a pristine waterway that provides a life necessity for tens of thousands of Arkansans. I venture to say I am among the few who genuinely appreciate this waterway for its many purposes, whether it be fishing, boating, kayaking, fowling or — yes! — a source of drinking water.

You see, any time you turn on a faucet in Malvern, Arkadelphia, Camden or many towns downstream, you’re using water from the nation’s 25th-longest river. This beauty starts near Mena and continues a steady pace for 605 miles until it joins another river to reach the mighty Mississippi in the “boot” of Louisiana. This is the same river Hernando de Soto traversed during his conquest of the Southeastern U.S., and the same river which Declaration of Independence author and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson ordered to be explored following the Louisiana Purchase.

I’ve been near the Ouachita’s headwaters in Mena, where to my delight I was once able to lob a stone across from one bank to the other. In the sweltering summer heat of 2006 my father and I canoed 50 miles from Arkadelphia to our family cabin in Ouachita County. One Christmas, to my wife’s dismay, I tagged along with an in-law for a jet boat trip from Malvern to Arkadelphia. I’m among the many who have run trot lines across this river, trolled for Kentucky and largemouth bass on this river, shot at ducks flying over this river, paddled a jon boat with a young child down this river. This river is my stomping (and splashing) grounds.

It doesn’t sit well with me — and I hope you, Kind Reader, feel the same — that some panty-waste millionaires could be allowed to use the Ouachita River as their company’s personal septic tank. I’m talking about Anthony Timberlands, Inc., a company that maintains it had nothing to do with the 8 miles of hydraulic fluid sludge recently discovered in a Malvern-area creek that empties into the Ouachita, killing an unknown quantity of fish habitat and a number of cows that drank from the source.

I don’t buy their innocence plea. As someone who spent the better part of four years laboring at a lumber mill in Dallas County, I’ve personally seen where lazy millwrights were allowed to get away with allowing equipment to leak hydraulic fluid onto the ground, and where sawdust is used to soak up the spillage. The accumulated soiled sawdust is later hauled away and dumped at “The North Forty” where it is later burned with no regard for air pollution.

My eyes and ears remain on Veolia North America’s Gum Springs plant, which collects hazardous waste from across the nation before it’s treated and released into the river’s floodplain. This company, it’s worth noting, holds land deeds to a creek that eventually empties into the great Ouachita.

A Ouachita River sunset south of Arkadelphia at Maddox Branch. | Courtesy photo/Sean Ruggles

The recent news about ATI’s negligence, coupled with the concerns that Veolia’s residential neighbors have voiced, remind me all too well of a John Prine song I hope will be played at my funeral. The Ouachita might be considered an open storm drain for some rich businessmen, but it’s paradise for people like me. So long as I’m afloat I will remind Mr. Peabody that some things are more important than his coal train, lumber production or waste treatment.

For years I have told close relatives that my final wishes are to have my ashes sprinkled into the Ouachita River near our family cabin, because the river is my zone of comfort and peace. While I may deserve worse, I hope my final resting place will not be in a stagnant cesspool of hydraulic fluid and chromium. My final wishes aside, however, I hope our descendants can live in a town where the water source isn’t contaminated with heavy metals or petrochemicals. 

I hope the millionaires and billionaires will kindly consider that the Ouachita River is much more than a brown stream: it’s a way of life, and it is life.

6 replies »

  1. Before some rush to their own righteous judgement about the recent spill into the Ouachita River, shouldn’t we give science a few days to see who all may be the guilty and how they react to addressing clean up?
    Joel, as an employee of your Dallas County sawmill, did you do the right and responsible act to report to your employer that other employees might be polluting the mill site? Or did you choose to just sit on the information for a sometime future article?
    We want a clean river, and we hope our media will responsibly be our eyes and ears, but Hot Spring County, and Clark County do not need to put a major part of our economy at risk (mill employees, loggers, timber owners, tire stores and convenience stores) to raise hysteria as yet not based on sound science. Give Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality a moment. The Anthony family are not “panty waist” millionaires. They are very respected members of the Arkansas community. Your statement, even as an opinion, was beneath a reputable editor, but we all make mistakes especially in our world where opinion gets confused with facts.

    • This was initially reported to ADEQ in February of 2022. How much time do they need? Have you actually personally studied the science behind this matter or are you just parroting what the Anthony’s want you to?

  2. Allen Morgan, seems like they (scientists) have had more than a few days to figure things out. It troubles me that our drinking water may contain heavy metals. You must remember Flint, MI which had lead in their water long enough to impact the brains of the dear children there. SW Arkansas does not need to be known as a dumping ground. This includes Veolia as well as Anthony Timberlands.

  3. So what about the deer in this area? Did the Arkansas Game and Fish not know about this? Have they even done any testing on the wildlife that remain in the area. Maybe I will conduct my own testing

    • Well said friend!! I have analyzed many samples from effluents polluting that river and hope one day these corporate folks will care more about the life of the river and its’ people then making a buck. Why is it so hard for people to make the connection that water and soil are life! I spent several years of my life living on the bank of that river and it deserves so much more!

  4. Joe I’m so thankful for your words. Our entire nation lacks the health that could be our birthright.

    Let’s claim our believed superior American abilities and figure out how to have those and a strong economy. One does not preclude the other.