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.
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.