Save the Illinois River, Inc.
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Tahlequah, OK 74464-1949
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[Archived] State seeking compromise on waste cleanup

| Environment | January 24, 2018

Oklahoma is going to ask poultry companies to pay for the removal of chicken waste from sensitive watersheds, instead of forcing them to accept liability for years of water degradation in lakes and scenic rivers, an official said Wednesday. State Secretary of Environment Brian Griffin announced Oklahoma's intention to ask the poultry companies to take "financial responsibility" as a compromise to avoid litigation. The poultry companies, Griffin said, "have made it very clear to us that they will not accept technical legal liability for the action of their contract growers." "That's a deal-breaker, a line in the sand," he said. "If we force them to take that liability, they'll fight that all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court." Griffin discussed negotiations between the state and the Arkansas poultry industry during the 23rd Annual Oklahoma Governor's Water Conference held Wednesday at the Adam's Mark Hotel. "There are a lot of things the companies can do with the (waste) -- gasify it, pelletize it, or compost it. But first you have to bank it, get it off the fields to a safe storage area, then get it out of the watershed," Griffin said. "We don't care how you do it," he said. "We just want you to take financial responsibility to deal with it." Griffin said Attorney General Drew Edmondson thinks the poultry companies need to accept legal liability. A legal opinion issued by Edmondson's office last year suggested that poultry corporations could be liable for pollution produced by their contract growers. But because Gov. Frank Keating wants litigation to be the last resort, Griffin said, he has been charged to develop necessary measures agreeable to both sides that would protect the state's sensitive watershed and scenic rivers. Tulsa attorney Charles Shipley, however, questions Griffin's plan, calling it "weak-kneed." "Without having the (poultry companies) being held liable for the waste generated by the contract growers for their industry, I think you get less than half a loaf," Shipley said. "We avoid actual relief by avoiding the issue of their liability," he said. "That is why it's a deal-breaker for them because the companies know it's going to cost them a lot of money to fix what they have screwed up." Shipley, who represents a class-action lawsuit brought against poultry companies for waste pollution to Grand Lake, likened the situation to pollution in EPA Superfund sites. The poultry companies "are saying that whatever we've done up to this point, don't make us go back and fix it. And we're not agreeing we're liable for it, but as good citizens we'll start financing something that will relieve pollution in the future," he said. Shipley questioned what would happen with the continued pollution effects. "There are still many areas where the soil is so saturated with the chicken waste that the pollution will continue to leach into streams for another 15 years," he said. For decades, contract chicken farmers have been applying "chicken litter" to pastures as fertilizer. Excess loads of the nutrient phosphorus, which is linked to the chicken waste, is blamed for degrading the water quality of Oklahoma lakes and rivers. One of Tulsa's main drinking water sources, Lake Eucha, has been affected by the massive phosphorus loads, creating chronic taste and odor episodes that have cost the city millions to treat. Tulsa also has a lawsuit pending against the city of De catur, Ark., and six poultry companies. Griffin said past measures taken to reduce pollution in the Illinois River without litigation have "sadly" not improved the river. "Instead of seeing an improvement in water quality of the scenic river, we've seen a deterioration, just the opposite." Griffin said the state's approval of a numeric standard for phosphorus, which is set to be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency Nov. 1, will force upstream states to do what is necessary to meet that standard as water crosses the border. Other measures Griffin spoke about included having Arkansas accept and develop a poultry regulatory scheme that requires a registration program and a comprehensive nutrient management plan for contract growers; development of a phosphorus standard for watersheds that cross state boundaries; and development of comprehensive watershed restoration strategies. P.J. Lassek, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8382 or via e-mail at