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55 wells around Locust Grove to be tested

TULSA, Okla. (AP)--The state Department of Environmental Quality said Feb. 17 it would test 55 private water wells within a five-mile radius of the northeastern Oklahoma town of Locust Grove to ensure the safety of drinking water in the area.

The testing, to be done Feb. 18 and Feb. 19, comes after the department received information from Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office suggesting a deadly E. coli outbreak last summer in the town could have been the result of contamination from Arkansas poultry farms.

The Oklahoma Department of Health said previously it was unlikely well water caused the outbreak at the Country Cottage restaurant last August. One person died and more than 300 others were sickened.

On Feb. 13, Edmondson released a report concluding that the well at the popular buffet restaurant "is, and has been, contaminated with poultry waste and associated bacteria, including E. coli."

The report also noted that there are 49 poultry houses within a six-mile radius of Locust Grove that have the capacity to produce 10,000 tons of waste a year. It also states there is insufficient pasture land to dispose of all of the waste near the houses.

Edmondson sued 13 Arkansas poultry companies in 2005, claiming that the excessive land application of chicken waste in the 1 million-acre Illinois River watershed could be a danger to public health.

Companies named in that complaint include Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc.

The pollution trial figures to begin in September.

Edmondson also is seeking to overturn a federal judge's decision against stopping the poultry industry from disposing of bird waste in the watershed, which is shared by Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Last September, a federal judge here ruled that Oklahoma had "not yet met its burden of proving that bacteria in the waters of the IRW are caused by the application of poultry litter rather than by other sources, including cattle manure and human septic systems."

The state is scheduled to argue its appeal on the injunction March 11 at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Skylar McElhaney, a spokeswoman for the DEQ, said results of the testing would be available in late February.

"While we do not regulate private wells, we do want to provide information to those homeowners so they can make informed decisions," she said Feb. 17.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson, would not speculate Feb. 17 on what the testing would show, but said in a statement that the company was not aware "of any sampling data or studies suggesting that E. coli O111 is commonly found in poultry litter."

Last year's outbreak became the largest in the nation's history for the rare E. coli strain O111.

Chad Ingle, 26, of Pryor, died on Aug. 24, a week after eating at the restaurant. In addition, 341 people became sick and 72 were hospitalized. Several young children required dialysis after they became ill.

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