Mega poultry houses in northeastern Oklahoma
February 8, 2023
Call to action: Settlement of poultry case requires citizen scrutiny
Oklahomans owe a debt of gratitude to a couple of state attorneys general whose combined efforts won a reprieve for the Illinois River and its tributaries.
Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson prosecuted a lawsuit filed by the state against 13 Arkansas-based poultry companies. The four-term attorney general filed the case in 2005, oversaw a 52-day trial that extended across five months before it concluded in 2010, and waited more than a decade before U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell published his findings and conclusions of law.
Edmondson described the judge’s findings and conclusions as “a home run for the trial team and a very good day” for the Illinois River Watershed. Frizzell found the vertically integrated poultry companies responsible for polluting the watershed by allowing applications of poultry litter to land in amounts that exceeded statutory caps and sustainable agricultural practices.
The federal judge cited evidence presented by Edmondson and his trial team that shows poultry companies were the primary contributors of phosphorus allowed to accumulate where it was overapplied as fertilizer across much of the watershed. Stormwater unlocked massive amounts of phosphorous embedded in the soil through erosion and washed nutrient-rich sediments into the streams and creeks that flow into the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller.
The state’s evidence also shows how phosphorus loading triggers algal blooms, which rob water of dissolved oxygen needed to support aquatic organisms and fish populations. Other adverse effects of high phosphorus levels include the degradation of water clarity and quality across the Illinois River Watershed.
Attorney General Gentner Drummond, the first of four who followed Edmondson to demonstrate an interest in the lawsuit filed by Edmondson against the poultry companies, stands now with the task of steering this matter toward a successful conclusion. Frizzell ordered him and lawyers representing the poultry companies to present a proposed settlement agreement no later than March 17 for his consideration or he will dictate the terms and include them in a final order.
Regardless of who drafts the terms, any settlement agreement or final order must include protections that go beyond memorandums of understanding that outline aspirations for the watershed with vague language that renders the remedies unenforceable. Protecting the treasured waters within the Illinois River Watershed requires measurable goals, deadlines set in stone, and enforceable terms with teeth.
Any settlement agreement must include steps that go beyond those taken by the poultry industry after Edmondson filed the 2005 lawsuit. An acceptable agreement will ensure compliance with the total phosphorus standard established decades ago for Oklahoma’s scenic streams and rivers — no more than 0.037 mg/L at the state line.
Frizzell’s findings and conclusions will have an impact beyond those involved with the lawsuit, so it will be important to include input from all stakeholders during the negotiation of a settlement agreement. Edmondson, who championed this lawsuit despite its political costs, should have a seat at the table.
Transparency will be paramount to the success of any settlement agreement — that is what’s owed to citizen stakeholders. There must be transparency while parties to the lawsuit forge terms of an agreement, transparency in the enforcement of its provisions, and transparency of the results produced.
Members of Save the Illinois River have been battling since 1984 to protect and preserve the scenic river and Lake Tenkiller. STIR and others engaged in this decades-long endeavor understand Frizzell’s findings and conclusions mark the beginning of a new chapter, not the victorious end to a long war.
Now is thet ime for vigilance and citizen oversight. That is the only way the restoration, protection and preservation of the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller are ensured.