Citing the protection of Oklahoma lakes and streams, drinking water and public health, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson announced his office has filed a lawsuit against several out-of-state poultry companies for polluting the waters of the state.
The complaint alleges violations of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, state and federal nuisance laws, trespass and Oklahoma Environmental Quality and Agriculture Codes.
"It all comes down to pollution," Edmondson said. "Too much poultry waste is being dumped on the ground and it ends up in the water. That's against the law. The companies own the birds as well as the feed, medicines and other things they put in their birds. They should be responsible for managing the hundreds of thousands of tons of waste that comes out of their birds."
Edmondson said that the filing of the lawsuit does not mean he has given up on mediation or negotiation.
"The filing of the petition was necessary whether the end result came from an agreement or a trial. You must have a petition to have a court order.
"We will defer issuance of summons," Edmondson added, "for a brief period to see if continued talks have any promise for settlement."
Named in the complaint are Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Aviagen Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production LLC, George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., and Willow Brook Foods Inc. These companies include some of the country's largest providers of chicken, turkey and eggs to consumers in the United States.
The lawsuit was filed in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma on behalf of the State of Oklahoma, including the attorney general and Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment Miles Tolbert. The suit addresses pollution in the Illinois River watershed, which consists of more than one million acres of land in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The watershed includes the Illinois River, Baron Fork River, Caney Creek, Flint Creek, Lake Tenkiller and other minor tributaries.
The Oklahoma legislature has designated about 70 miles of the Illinois River, about 35 miles of the Baron Fork River and about 12 miles of Flint Creek as scenic river areas, and Lake Tenkiller is one of Oklahoma's most popular outdoor recreation areas.
"We are asking the court to force these companies to stop polluting and repair the damage they have already done," Edmondson said. "Clean water is our most important natural resource, not only for public water supply and recreation, but also for the future of agriculture, industry and tourism."
The lawsuit alleges runoff from the improper dumping and storage of poultry waste has caused and is causing the pollution of Oklahoma streams and lakes. In this watershed alone, the phosphorus from poultry waste is equivalent to the waste that would be generated by 10.7 million people, a population greater than the states of Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma combined.
"I understand that many hardworking Oklahomans are employed by this industry and that a viable industry is important to their future," Edmondson said. "I also understand that the poultry companies can conduct their business in compliance with the law and remain viable - if they choose to do so.
"One company alone, Tyson, announced it was spending $75 million over 12 months in an ad campaign. If they can afford that, they can afford to clean up their waste," Edmondson said.
The attorney general said the Illinois River watershed serves as the source of drinking water for 22 public water supplies in eastern Oklahoma.
"We're not only talking about phosphorus," Edmondson said. "This waste contains arsenic, zinc, hormones and microbial pathogens like e. coli and fecal coliform - not exactly things you want in your drinking water."
Edmondson, who has spent the last three years seeking a negotiated water quality agreement with the poultry companies, said his attempts to reach an agreement outside the courtroom have not yet been successful.
"It's been three years, but we still don't have an agreement," Edmondson said. "We still hope for a negotiated agreement, but while we sit and hope, the pollution is still occurring. Filing this suit puts us one step closer to finally resolving this issue."
The attorney general has never claimed that poultry waste is the only source of pollution, just the major one, and poultry waste is not the only pollutant on which Edmondson has focused. The attorney general assisted the secretary of environment and Oklahoma environmental agencies in finalizing an agreement with Arkansas in December of 2003 to address municipal waste discharges.
"I know there are other sources of pollution," Edmondson said. "But, the major source of pollution in the watershed is poultry litter. No matter how much the industry pays its public relations consultants to spin it, the truth is obvious. Chicken waste is the problem."
The attorney general said the state cannot allow its waterways to be used as a dump.
"The financial burden for disposing of the poultry industry's waste should not fall on the citizens of Oklahoma, nor should Oklahoma allow its scenic rivers and lakes to serve as the poultry industry's disposal facility," Edmondson said. "Until the poultry companies are forced to take responsibility for safe management of their waste, these practices will continue and the problems will remain."