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Feathers fly at poultry pollution trial

Attorneys trade barbs in federal court, disputing whether poultry companies knew that over-application of chicken waste on farmland was polluting the Illinois River watershed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Attorneys for Oklahoma and the Arkansas poultry industry traded barbs in federal court Thursday, disputing whether the companies knew for decades that over-application of chicken waste on farmland was polluting the Illinois River watershed.

"They have been aware of these problems, and the evidence pointing in their direction for years," said Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who presented the first part of the state's opening remarks in its pollution lawsuit against 11 poultry companies. As he spoke, photographs of poultry litter piled high near barns and river banks flashed on monitors.

Robert George, an attorney for Tyson Foods Inc., one of the defendants in the case, responded in his opening statement that Oklahoma was launching an attack on "hardworking farmers" and defended the use of poultry litter as a valuable resource.

"Poultry litter is not on trial," George told a packed Tulsa courtroom, filled with industry executives and dozens of attorneys. "Growers want litter. They will use it or sell it, but either way, it's a valuable commodity to them."

Oklahoma sued the industry in 2005, claiming the hundreds of thousands of tons of bird waste it spreads on fields on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border is one of the major causes of pollution in the 1 million-acre river valley.

The case is being closely studied by other states thinking about challenging the way Big Poultry does business. The trial will resume Wednesday.

Glass jars as evidence
To illustrate the harm caused by massive amounts of poultry litter in the river valley, state attorney David Page set two glass jars filled with dark brown waste on a table before U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell.

"What's in this waste?" he asked before ticking off its contents: phosphorus, nitrogen, arsenic, estrogen, antibiotics and harmful pathogens.

For decades, farmers in northeastern Oklahoma have emptied litter from their chicken houses and spread the droppings on their fields as a cheap fertilizer to grow other crops.

The state argues runoff from the fields has polluted the Illinois River with harmful bacteria that threatens the health of the tens of thousands of people who raft and fish there each year.

But George countered that Oklahoma failed to take into account the waste from cattle operations and municipal water treatment plants, among other sources. The industry also argued that Arkansas and Oklahoma have sanctioned the practice of spreading chicken waste on farmland by issuing farmers permits to do it.

In a six-year period, Page claimed, nearly 942 million birds were raised in the watershed, which spans portions of Oklahoma and Arkansas, producing an estimated 2.7 million tons of waste in that time.

Other disposal options?
Edmondson has said the industry took the easy and cheap way out when it came to properly disposing of the waste, rather than burning it as energy, processing it into pellets or composting it.

He also accused the companies Thursday of placing the burden of handling the waste on the farmers who raise birds.

"The Illinois River watershed is ... a huge asset to the state of Oklahoma and to the nation," he said. "We have the legal tools at our disposal to fix it.

"This precious asset belongs to our children and grandchildren. It belongs to the future," he told the judge.

The other defendants named in the lawsuit are Cargill Inc., Cal-Maine Foods, Inc.; Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc. and Simmons Foods Inc.