Oklahomans battle poultry companies to save their rivers

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Oklahoma’s attorney general is suing Tyson Foods and other poultry processors, charging them with polluting an area of his state known for its chain of scenic lakes and rivers.

Tyson, the world’s largest meat producer, is one of a dozen Arkansas-based companies named in the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson. The case goes to trial Sept. 21.

Edmonson’s suit charges that the companies are responsible for contaminating the Oklahoma-Arkansas watershed with hundreds of thousands of tons of bird waste from the 1,800 poultry farms in the area.

The processors own the chickens and other fowl that these farms raise in factory-like conditions. The waste from the birds has been dumped on the farmland for years, and the runoff has turned once-clear rivers murky with algae, Edmondson and other Oklahomans say.

Poultry waste contains arsenic, heavy metals, bacteria, hormones and antibiotics, residues of feed and drugs administered to the birds in the factory farms.

Save the Illinois River, an organization based in Talequah, in northeastern Oklahoma, charges on its web site that the state’s “premier scenic rivers, the Illinois, Barren Fork, and Flint Creek do not meet state standards for ‘primary body contact recreation’ due to animal waste.”

Tenkiller Lake, 'the emerald jewel in Oklahoma's Crown of Lakes,' is degraded by excess nutrients from the animal wastes, the group says.

Kurt Robinson, president of Save the Illinois River, has spent many a day fishing and swimming in the river. “I love the Illinois River,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Muskogee. “I’ve been on the river all my life. I’ve seen the deterioration. I’ve lived it. I’m extremely concerned about the future of the river.”

Robinson said the attorney general’s lawsuit is extremely important to “begin the reversal of the degradation” of the river’s water quality.

If Edmondson can win a federal ruling requiring the companies to clean up their act, it would have national impact, Robinson said.

Last month, federal Judge Gregory Frizzell issued several pre-trial rulings siding with the poultry industry in the case. Frizzell was appointed by President Bush in 2007, on the recommendation of Oklahoma’s two Republican senators, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, both notorious anti-environmentalists.

Earlier, Tyson and seven other poultry companies tried to get the judge to revoke a $120,000 settlement that one company, Willow Brook Foods, reached with the state.

This is not the first time Tyson has been sued for polluting. In 2003, a federal court in Kentucky ruled that Tyson was responsible for pollution at factory farms in that state. Tyson eventually agreed to spend half a million dollars to monitor and mitigate ammonia emissions there.

Also in 2003, Tyson agreed to pay $7.5 million to clean up a Missouri poultry facility where untreated wastewater entered storm sewers.

In the Kentucky case the issue was ammonia released into the air. The Sierra Club and local residents had sued Tyson for failing to report hazardous releases of ammonia from four “animal factories” under its supervision in the state. In these huge operations, tens thousands of chickens packed into closed buildings produce enormous amounts of ammonia in their urine. The toxic gas can cause respiratory problems for humans, and in some cases it can be fatal.

The Kentucky lawsuit argued that the farms were so large that they should be regulated under some of the same federal pollution laws as factories, refineries and chemical plants.

Tyson had claimed it was not responsible for the pollution because its factory farms are run by independent farmers who raise chickens for Tyson under contract. But the federal judge in that case ruled that Tyson is “clearly in a position of responsibility and power with respect to each facility . . . and has the capacity to prevent and abate the alleged environmental damage.”

Aloma Dew, Sierra Club conservation organizer, called that ruling “a huge victory” for local residents. “Giant, corporate-owned factory farms are polluting our air and water, and are displacing local family farms,” she said at the time.

“Corporate agriculture,” Dew said, is “threatening the way of life of our family farmers who believe in good-neighbor practices and care about the land and the law.”

Update:An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that poultry processing companies like Tyson buy the chickens from the farmers. In fact, a reader knowledgeable about the poultry industry writes, 'The processors own the chickens, own the feed that goes into the chickens and tell the farmers exactly how they must be raised. Farmers own the buildings, supply the labor and are held responsible for all of the chicken waste. One of the primary reasons for this arrangement is so the processors can claim to not have any liability for mismanagement of the waste. Their pockets are much bigger than the individual farmers.'

The reader adds, 'The chicken litter does not have to be applied to the land in an unprocessed manner that is almost certain to cause pollution to some degree. And Tyson knows it.'

suewebb @ pww.org