That Time the Clintons Had Their Own Water Pollution Scandal

FLASHBACK: Gov. Bill Clinton was slammed for inaction in face of Arkansas water contamination

Bill and Hillary Clinton in Arkansas, 1991 / AP
• January 15, 2016 2:00 pm


While the Republican field spent their night debating in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton was on MSNBC talking about how "outraged" she is over the water pollution crisis in Michigan and how she would do everything she could to fix it if she were president. However, Clinton’s husband had a similar issue when he was governor of Arkansas.

Clinton has chosen to make the water situation in Flint, Michigan, an issue for her campaign, sending staffers to meet with the town’s mayor and further investigate the emergency. She called out Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for his inaction, saying she was "outraged" he hadn’t brought in federal assistance to help fix the issue.

The issue of government inaction in response to a deteriorating water supply is one that should be familiar to Clinton. In Arkansas, her husband was the target of criticism for standing idly by as the state's powerful chicken industry contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 people with 500,000 tons of chicken waste from northwest Arkansas.

Tyson Foods, which remains as strong today as it was during the years Clinton was in the governor's mansion, was seen by many as the cause for the deterioration of Arkansas' White River.

The way chicken farmers were disposing of waste was filling Arkansas streams with "fecal bacteria." It also resulted in high levels of nitrates in the water, known to cause blue baby syndrome and cancer, according to the Washington Post.

As the effects of poultry waste became evident to the people of Arkansas, Clinton took some steps to respond, but critics say his action was more symbolic than it was effective.

In 1990, for example, he created a task force to recommend ways to protect streams from poultry waste. His task force, however, was filled with members and supporters of the poultry industry. Two years passed and the task force failed to produce a single recommendation to remedy the situation.

"The governor is a politician who likes to tell everybody what they want to hear," an environmental lawyer in Arkansas told the Washington Post in 1992. "But we're in the process of losing our surface waters in northwest Arkansas because of the poultry industry, and he hasn't said what we're going to do to clean it up."

The worst instance of water pollution came in 1983, when a sinkhole opening in Dry Creek allowed a Tyson plant to leak sewage into the local water supply at the rate of 1 million gallons a day. People in the low-income farming town developed chronic dysentery and salmonella. There were globs of grease floating in drinking water pulled from local wells and hundreds of fish living in a previously clean spring were killed.

It took Clinton 17 months of being notified of the situation by state health inspectors for him to declare it a "disaster emergency" and get the people in the town connected to a city water supply.

Clinton continued to grant Tyson permits elsewhere in the state that put the water supply at risk for a similar fate. He was confronted in 1989 when the state gave permission for Tyson to build a 471,600-gallon chicken waste lagoon within 200 feet of a stream near the town of Rogers that provided drinking water for locals.

Soon after, state health department inspectors tested local wells and found multiple to be contaminated with bacteria. The fish in nearby ponds that took in water leaked from the waste lagoon all died.

The lagoon was closed in 1990, but not due to action by Clinton. Tyson voluntarily closed the lagoon in 1990 and pulled out of the town after pollution became a top story on local news.

When Clinton ran for president in 1992, his inaction in the face of water pollution was viewed as a major liability for his campaign that President George H. W. Bush could capitalize on.

"Officials of President Bush's campaign organization are considering a campaign stop in [the White River basin] to highlight Mr. Clinton's environmental record, or sending a television production crew to the region to film a political advertisement," the New York Times wrote in 1992.

The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether there is a difference between the Arkansas water contamination problem and the current situation in Michigan.