Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond speaks with media outside the Page Belcher Federal Building in Tulsa Friday. Photo by Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors
By KELLY BOSTIAN
With an oddly cordial, family reunion-like atmosphere in U.S. Northern District Court Judge Gregory Frizzell’s courtroom Friday, attorneys for the State of Oklahoma and poultry industry met briefly to extend tough negotiations for 90 more days.
The meeting followed Frizzell’s issuance on January 18 of a 219-page decision that found the state has been wronged by the poultry integrators and laid responsibility for decades of phosphorous contamination of the Illinois River Watershed on their doorsteps. He asked the opposing parties to come to a resolution by March 17 or risk him making a ruling of his own.
The suit was filed against what was then 13 poultry companies in 2005, argued for 52 days in late 2009 and early 2010, and appeared to finally turn a corner toward a resolution on Friday and, at least, a next phase on June 19.
It’s not every day that the same judge and many of the same but fewer lawyers, representing consolidated companies, reconvene on the same topic 13 years after their last meeting.
Frizzell opened the meeting with some nice-to-see-you-again greetings and jokes about graying hair but later shared personal observations and made known his desire for progress on the pollution issue. He said he wants to see not just a resolution to existing issues and future practices, but plans for remediation of damages done.
The judge made clear he appreciates the depth and scope of the issues at hand, but said, “It’s time for a resolution. It is in everyone’s best interest to get an effective resolution here.”
He shared a story of driving to Branson, Mo. with his wife recently and seeing poultry litter piles off the road. He also remarked that he remembered scuba diving in Lake Tenkiller with a clear view down to 40 feet.
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond told the court the parties could have simply filed for an extension on paper, but given the “solemnity and significance” of the topic they felt it was important to meet in person Friday.
Ed Fite, GRDA vice president of water quality, and Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Attorney General, joined Drummond at the state’s table.
Attorneys in the room represented three Tyson Inc. companies, Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Inc., Cargill Inc., two George’s Inc. companies, Peterson Farms, and Simmons Foods.
Drummond said negotiations have been productive and at times emotional, and said the breadth and depth of issues around phosphorous pollution resulting from decades of application of the material as fertilizer in vulnerable watersheds is “huge.”
Drummond, Tyson's attorney Adam Deckinger and Frizzell all made mention of making use of an agreement set in 2003 when the City of Tulsa sued many of the same poultry companies. That suit, focused on the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed, a source of Tulsa’s water supply. It was settled with the naming of a “special master” and agreements to truck litter out of the watershed.
However, the agreement was sealed and administered solely by the special master. As a result the public, and even state agencies, have for 20 years not been privy to how, exactly, it played out.
Drummond said he has petitioned the judge who presided over the Eucha-Spavinaw case to open those files for his office so they can reference the materials for the ongoing negotiations.
All parties said the negotiations are confidential but Drummond, with his arms literally spread wide, said “everything is on the table at the moment.”
The public will see the results when the time comes and the new agreement may well involve the naming of a special master to oversee the future envisioned under the agreement, but one that is public record, he said.
Perhaps ahead of the public, Drummond and the poultry companies have to meet the demands of Frizzell, who must sign off on whatever they craft.
“I don’t think he will be satisfied if I don’t deliver,” Drummond said.
Kelly Bostian is an independent writer working for the Oklahoma Ecology Project, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to in-depth reporting about environmental issues for Oklahomans.