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[Archived] County judge upset by cloak around testing

| Oklahoma Scenic Rivers | January 06, 2014

County judge upset by cloak around testing

Water sampling equipment carries Oklahoma contact

   The Oklahoma attorney general’s office is testing the water quality in several Washington County streams in preparation for a lawsuit that Attorney General Drew Edmondson has threatened to file against Arkansas-based poultry companies, a spokesman for the office said Tuesday. 

   Spokesman Charles Price would not say what firm the state hired or what type of testing it is doing. He also would not confirm whether the state commissioned three testing devices found last week by Washington County Road Department employees. 

   The environmental consulting firm Camp, Dresser and McKee placed the devices along Bush Creek, Morris Creek and the Muddy Fork of the Illinois River, said Marlene Hobel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts firm. Hobel confirmed the company is working with University of Tulsa geochemistry professor Bert Fisher but would not say who hired them. 

   Fisher’s contact information is attached to each of the devices, Washington County Judge Jerry Hunton said. 

   Edmondson has threatened to sue the poultry companies, claiming that phosphorous runoff from chicken litter used by Northwest Arkansas farmers is polluting the streams flowing into Oklahoma and causing algae blooms. 

   Hunton said two of the testing devices are on county rights of way, and he never gave permission to put them there. The third machine is on property belonging to LaVerne Bush, wife of former County Judge Bill Bush, who said she didn’t give permission. Hunton accused Edmondson of "sneaking into " Washington County without notifying anyone to test for phosphorus in the streams that flow into Oklahoma. 

   "This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t smell right. Arkansas residents wouldn’t want our government to act this way," Hunton said. 

   Fisher did not return calls to his university office, his geological consulting firm, Lithochimeia Inc., his home phone or his cell phone. Hobel referred questions about the project to Tulsa attorney David Page, who also did not return several calls Tuesday afternoon. 

   Hunton said he spoke Monday with Fisher and that the professor told him he was working for Camp, Dresser and McKee. Hunton said Fisher would not tell him why he was testing or why he had not sought permission to place the devices. 

   Price said it was the consulting firm’s responsibility to handle any permission needed for the testing. 

   "They are doing it, not us, and the barrels belong to them," Price said. "They are required to follow all applicable laws." 

   Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Dave Bary said no federal regulations require one state to notify another state when it conducts water quality testing within its borders. Curtis Varnell, a University of Arkansas environmental dynamics graduate who has conducted water quality testing, said most scientists con- sider it ethical to notify public and private landowners if a scientist is testing on their property. Hunton said he also considers the testing without notification unethical. 

   "I’m not trying to do the wrong thing here, but I think the ‘do-right’ rule has been broken by those people, not us," Hunton said. 

   Lincoln resident Gene Pharr said he saw a device more than two weeks ago on the banks of Bush Creek. He described it as a yellow bucket on the land with hoses running off of it into the creek. Varnell said the type of device Pharr described can take continuous water quality samples of chemicals such as phosphorus. 

   Documents show that Edmondson entered a cooperative agreement with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry in April to test soil samples at poultry farms in Delaware and Adair counties in Oklahoma. 

   Beverly Saunders, a poultry farmer in Oklahoma, said Oklahoma Agriculture Department officials told her at a May 3 meeting that the state had hired Camp, Dresser and McKee to conduct the soil tests. Price would not confirm whom the state hired. 

   Hunton said he asked the Arkansas attorney general’s office whether he has the legal right to confiscate the devices that are on county property if Fisher does not explain why he is testing. Matt De-Cample, spokesman for the Arkansas attorney general, said the office is looking into the matter.