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Poultry Lawsuit Heads to Mediation

Save the Illinois River, Inc. | Environment | June 13, 2023
Image titleNOTE PLEASE:  STIR supports the Oklahoma Ecology Project which provided this article.

Drummond seeks poultry suit mediation
AG says the federal judge would ‘kill’ poultry companies in court
Kelly J Bostian
Oklahoma Ecology Project

Kelly J Bostian

Published in

Oklahoma Ecology Project
Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond. State of Oklahoma photo

SHAWNEE–Oklahoma’s lawsuit against major poultry producers could go to federal mediation if the state’s attorney general gets his wish.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond told journalists at the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Press Association Saturday that the lawsuit focused on water quality in the Illinois River Watershed has him “in a tough spot.”

He also said he doesn’t hold much hope for his wish to come true.

Drummond said he doesn’t see himself as a litigant but as the attorney general elected into the job to settle the longstanding conflict. He said clean-water advocates on one side and poultry industry leadership on the other see the issue in zero-sum terms. It pits clean water, which he “supports 100 percent,” against a robust poultry industry, which he said is vital for eastern Oklahoma.

“It’s they have to win, and you have to lose,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can find a path through which we win; state, water, and poultry.”

On Jan. 17, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Gregory Frizzell issued a detailed 219-page finding on the case. He ordered the opposing parties to come to a resolution by March 17 or risk him handing down his own ruling. But he allowed a 60-day extension in March and scheduled a hearing for his Tulsa courtroom on Friday.

Now, a change of venue is on the table.

Frizzell’s decision and findings of fact on the lawsuit, initially filed by Attorney General Drew Edmondson in 2005, sided heavily with the state and put responsibility for decades of phosphorus contamination in the Illinois River Watershed directly on poultry integrators.

Evidence cited by Frizzell found that non-point source pollution results from removing poultry litter from large-scale chicken farms and using it as fertilizer for crops and grazing lands.

Drummond said that phosphorous concentrations in the soil are allowed up to 300 pounds per acre, even in sensitive watersheds such as the Eucha-Spavinaw.

“That’s saturation-level,” Drummond said. “The scientific standard is 65 pounds.”
Attorney General Gentner Drummond speaks with reporters outside the federal building in Tulsa on March 17. Photo by Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors

Any solution would require the poultry industry to find new disposal methods for tens of thousands of tons of poultry litter annually spread on farmlands and to perhaps mitigate some of the problems the judge’s findings attribute to past practices.

Drummond characterized as “chippy” the negotiations with leadership at Tyson Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Inc., Cargill Inc., George’s Inc., Peterson Farms, and Simmons Food.

He said he offered the industry a first try at a proposal, and the result lacked teeth. His office returned with “a much more aggressive” approach, and the poultry groups recently responded with a more modest offering.

“Just yesterday, we decided instead of going back in front of Frizzell next week, where he will chastise us and probably hold us all in contempt, we asked him to go into federal mediation so we can engage a 10th Circuit judge, not from Oklahoma, from Utah, who has a lot of experience in environmental law.”

Drummond said a judge who is an expert in the subject area and based in another state might put fresh eyes on the Frizzell decision and gain headway with the poultry industry. He said they need to be convinced to work with a state attorney general who wants to find ways to phase in changes and help the industry evolve.

“I want to find commonality, and we won’t find it in federal court,” Drummond said. “We’re going to have to do it through mediation.”

However, he added he doesn’t hold out too much hope. He might be the only one who favors that approach. “But we’re going to try our hardest,” he said.

Drummond said leaving the ruling to Frizzell could be hard on the industry.

“Oh, he’ll kill ‘em,” he said. “That won’t be good for Oklahoma.”