A court is asked to expand the state's lawsuit against the industry.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Attorneys for several poultry companies sued by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson for polluting the Illinois River watershed filed documents Tuesday asking a federal court to expand the lawsuit to include 161 towns, companies and other non-poultry entities.
In addition to the towns of Tahlequah, Westville and Watts, the potential new parties include marinas, resorts, recreational vehicle parks, nurseries, real estate developments, dairies, farms and other businesses and numerous individuals.
"It is unfortunate that this step was necessary," said Janet Wilkerson, spokeswoman for the poultry companies. "But the attorney general is seeking to hold the poultry industry 100 percent liable for all of man's and nature's influences in the Illinois watershed, while turning a blind eye to what is really occurring."
Edmondson contends that 14 poultry companies are polluting the watershed with runoff tainted by phosphorus-laden chicken litter. He alleges that runoff from improperly dumped and stored chicken litter is polluting streams and lakes.
Edmondson says the companies are violating the federal
Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, nuisance and trespass laws and environmental and agricultural codes.
He is also asking for an injunction barring application of chicken litter as a fertilizer.
Late Monday, the poultry companies asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in Tulsa to dismiss Edmondson's lawsuit.
Wilkerson said the poultry companies have been following state laws and regulations regarding the use of such substances.
"Singling us out in a lawsuit is driven by pure politics and the greed of trial lawyers," said Wilkerson, who termed Edmondson's action "ridiculous." "Not one state or federal regulatory agency has found that the companies or independent poultry farmers are threatening or harming Oklahoma's natural resources."
The new court filings contend that Edmondson has chosen to ignore laws enacted by Oklahoma and Arkansas, with which the industry in complying.
Poultry company attorneys also argue that Edmondson is disregarding the supremacy of federal law by trying to reach across state borders to regulate commerce in neighboring Arkansas.
The poultry companies argue that the nutrients found in chicken litter have led to its long-standing, legal use as a fertilizer, and are not hazardous substances covered by the federal laws cited in Edmondson's lawsuit.
If state policy needs to be changed, said Wilkerson, it should be tackled by the Legislature, not the attorney general.
In a written statement, Edmondson called the attempt to pull 161 private and public entities into the lawsuit a stunt aimed at applying political pressure to his office.
"Poultry is the major source of pollution in the watershed," Edmondson said. "The industry can blame golf courses or nurseries or homeowners with septic tanks, but in an area where chickens far outnumber people, it's clear who's muddying the waters."
Edmondson also questioned why all the new third-party defendants are located in Oklahoma.
"Half the watershed is in Arkansas, but according to the poultry companies, only the Oklahoma side is responsible for the pollution," he said. "The poultry industry has declared war on eastern Oklahoma, and they've just taken hostages."
Edmondson said the industry is arguing on one hand that no laws have been broken, on the other that if there is pollution, they are not the only ones committing it.
"This is yet another attempt by the industry to lay blame everywhere but where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of the Arkansas poultry industry," he said.