Oklahoma attorney general seeks halt to poultry waste disposal
COLCORD, Okla. (AP)--In a region that produces billions of pounds of the nation's poultry, part of doing business for the past half-century was trying to ignore the smelly waste dropped by the birds.
Now, the chickens have come to roost, as Oklahoma wants a federal judge to stop 13 Arkansas-based poultry companies from dropping any more chicken litter in a once-pristine watershed.
The preliminary injunction request is part of the state's 2005 lawsuit against the $2 billion poultry operation here--including Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, Cargill Inc., George's Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.--for polluting with chicken waste, which contains bacteria, antibiotics, growth hormones and harmful metals.
The Oklahoma-Arkansas region supplies roughly 2 percent of the nation's poultry and is one of several regions nationally where the industry is most concentrated.
At stake is a practice thousands of farmers have employed for years: Taking the ammonia-reeking stuff--clumped bird droppings, bedding and feathers--and spreading it on their land as cheap fertilizer.
However inexpensive, decades of mass-dumping of the litter has wreaked havoc in the 1-million-acre Illinois River watershed, turning it into a murky, sludgy mess, environmentalists say.
If a judge orders an end to disposing the waste here, the ruling could lead to similar environmental lawsuits nationwide against the industry, which produced more than 48 billion pounds of chicken in 2006.
The federal court hearing on the injunction continued March 3 in Tulsa.
Oklahoma estimates more than 345,000 tons of poultry waste are produced annually in the river valley, with the bulk of that tonnage disposed of in the same area. More than 1,800 poultry houses are in the region, most of them in Arkansas.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said while the industry spends tens of millions of dollars on self-promotion--such as the $75 million "Powered by Tyson" campaign--its decision not to properly dispose of the bird waste is about the bottom line.
"They could burn it as energy, process it and pelletize it, they can even properly compost it until the pathogens are dead," Edmondson said. "And they have chosen economically not to."
To try the case, which so far has cost more than $12 million, Oklahoma has retained the South Carolina law firm of Motley Rice, known for winning a settlement of nearly $250 billion against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
The poultry industry, which has refused to disclose how much it has paid to defend the lawsuit, is fighting back.
It says Oklahoma is using unreliable, untested data to make its case and refuses to accept other factors of pollution in the watershed, such as cattle manure and urban runoff.
"It's junk science," said Tyson Foods attorney Robert George.
They also defend poultry litter's use as an organic fertilizer, and add that Oklahoma and Arkansas state laws already regulate land application of the waste.
Industry spokeswoman Jackie Cunningham said an injunction could be a major blow to the economy in Oklahoma, which ranks 10th in the nation in poultry production at 1.3 billion pounds annually.
"It's important to keep in mind the monetary demands being made (in the lawsuit) could potentially bankrupt family farms," said Cunningham, director of community relations for the Poultry Community Council.
Here in Colcord, a town of about 900 near the Arkansas state line, many residents have their fortunes tied in some way to the poultry industry.
Ranchers Bill and Betty Anderson, whose land has been in the family since the 1930s, depend on the litter from six chicken houses as fertilizer to grow hay for cattle. Their alternative is paying hundreds of dollars per ton for commercial fertilizer.
When they heard news of an injunction to stop a practice they've known for decades, they thought it was some kind of joke.
"I think it's about the money," Bill Anderson offered. "The chicken people like the Tysons and Cargills, they're the only ones who've got money.
"You can't get blood out of a turnip," he said.
For ranchers Al and Bev Saunders, who have up to $750,000 invested in their chicken-growing operation, an injunction could be a backbreaker.
"I don't think that Oklahoma really wants to put farmers out of business," Bev Saunders said.
But what about what the litter could be doing to the watershed?
"The farmers, we want good water too," she said. "If I even thought there was a health threat, I would be the first to stand up and say something about it."