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[Archived] State AG sues poultry firms

| News | January 14, 2015

Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed his long-threatened federal lawsuit Monday against 14 poultry companies accused of polluting the state's waters with chicken litter.

"We cannot allow our waterways to continue to be used as a dump for the poultry industry," Edmondson said.

The complaint, made in Tulsa's U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Oklahoma, alleges violations of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, state and federal nuisance laws, trespass and state environmental and agriculture codes.

It focuses on pollution in the Illinois River watershed, claiming that the lakes, streams and the drinking water are tainted with runoff from phosphorus-rich chicken litter that is applied to the land as fertilizer.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount of compensation to clean up the pollution, along with punitive damages and legal costs.

If the case goes to trial, Edmondson said, he would make a presentation to the court about what he believes is a fair amount, but would not reveal the figure to the media.

"It's big," he said.

Despite the filing of the lawsuit, Edmondson said, he hopes talks with the poultry industry will continue and has held off on the issuance of summons.

"It is in their interest more than mine to mediate and negotiate," he said. "An outcome in court could be disastrous to one or more of the companies, and I think we're going to win."

A spokeswoman for the companies, Janet Wilkerson, said they are eager to continue the talks.

"We continue to hold out hope that we can avoid wasteful litigation, which I think everyone agrees is certainly not the most efficient way to address the issues before us in a way that preserves water quality, our industry and the related 12,000 Oklahoma jobs," she said.

Poultry farmers have followed all regulations on chicken litter, Wilkerson said.

"While we're doing everything humanly possible to avoid going to court, our attorneys tell us that when the facts come out and the court applies the law, the poultry industry's position will be proven correct."

Marla Peek, Oklahoma Farm Bureau director of regulatory affairs, said she was disappointed by the lawsuit.

"This is an attack on agriculture in Oklahoma," she said, noting that Edmondson is trying to make a name for himself with the case.

The state began talks with the industry in 2001, and had its latest mediation round last week. Both sides are set to meet again in July and August.

"I've been disappointed by the lack of real progress and by what I've perceived as a lack of commitment on the part of the industry," Edmondson said. "I want this to be a very clear signal that my patience won't last forever."

Keith Morgan, president of Poultry Partners Inc., which represents about 350 poultry farmers, said he's worried that the suit and tougher regulations will force the industry to leave the state.

"My dad raised chickens, and I raise chickens," said Morgan of Kansas, Okla. "My livelihood and the livelihoods of thousands of others are at stake here."

The attorney general said he doesn't want to hurt the jobs provided by the poultry industry, but that there are even more tourism jobs on the line.

"If people are afraid to go in the water, it will be a death blow to recreational tourism in northeastern Oklahoma," he said.

"I understand that many hard-working Oklahomans and people in Arkansas are tied up in (the poultry) industry. But I also understand that the poultry companies can conduct their business in compliance with the law and remain viable, if they choose to do so."

One of the companies named in the suit, Tyson, spent $75 million on a year-long advertising campaign to tout the protein in its meats, Edmondson noted.

"But they have refused to accept responsibility for adequate expenditure to clean up this basin," he said.

The 2,363 poultry houses in the Arkansas half of the watershed and the 508 houses in the Oklahoma portion generate the phosphorus waste equivalent to 10.7 million people per year, Edmondson said.

Oklahoma Secretary of Environment Miles Tolbert said companies in other industries such as energy, aerospace and manufacturing look after their waste -- and poultry companies should do the same.

"This entire effort is about fairness," he said. "I fervently hope that the outcome of this effort is an agreed-upon solution, but a solution is necessary whether it's through a settlement or a verdict."

Wilkerson said any water quality issue in the watershed is not entirely the fault of poultry operations or any single industry.

"It defies common sense, and I doubt any scientist could make this claim with a straight face," she said. "We have been saying for a long time that the companies are willing to do their part, but if the state is serious about water quality, it needs to follow though on comprehensive watershed management programs to address the thousands of sources out there."

The attorney general said he has never claimed that the poultry industry was the only source of pollution, just the major one.

"No matter how much the industry pays its public relations people to spin it, the truth is obvious," he said. "Chicken is the problem."

Named in the suit are Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Aviagen Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc.

Brian Barber 581-8322