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Almost 18 years later, Oklahoma wins lawsuit against Arkansas poultry firms over Illinois River pollution

by Doug Thompson | January 19, 2023 at 9:35 a.m. | Updated January 19, 2023 at 11:42 a.m.
Gavel, scales of justice and law books / Getty Images/BrianAJackson

Oklahoma won its lawsuit against Arkansas poultry producers over pollution of the Illinois River, which runs between the two states, according to a recent court ruling.

Wednesday’s ruling in U.S. District Court in Tulsa, Okla. comes 17 years and seven months after then-Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed the case. The trial before U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell concluded on Sept. 24, 2009. Wednesday’s ruling is 214 pages long.

Arkansas poultry companies violated trespassing and public nuisance-related laws in Oklahoma, the judge ruled.

“The parties are hereby directed to meet and attempt to reach an agreement with regard to remedies to be imposed in this action,” the ruling concludes. “On or before March 17, 2023, they shall advise the court whether they have been able to do so. The agreed remedies, if any, must by approved by the court. In the event the parties are unable to reach an accord, the court shall enter judgement.”

The case involves 11 named defendants including Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and others.

“We are aware of the decision and are reviewing,” Tyson Foods spokesman Derek Burleson said Thursday. “We have no comment at this time.”

Relief sought in the lawsuit includes curtailing runoff from litter, which is applied as fertilizer, and unspecified money damages.

“As late as the 1960s, its waters were crystal clear,” the ruling says of the Illinois River. “But that is no longer the case. The river is polluted with phosphorus, with adverse consequences that include low dissolved oxygen; abundant filamentous green algae; blue-green algae in Lake Tenkiller near the river’s terminus; greatly decreased transparency; and significant detrimental impacts on the numbers and species of fish.”

Oklahoma “has established that hundreds of thousands of tons of poultry litter generated by defendants’ chickens and turkeys are spread onto the lands of the Illinois River Watershed each year,” the ruling continues.

Oklahoma established a significant cause of the excess phosphorus in the watershed is the land application of litter from defendants’ poultry, according to the ruling.

Edmondson filed suit June 13, 2005 after years of negotiations with poultry companies failed to reach an agreement.

The ground in Northwest Arkansas where the litter is applied has absorbed all the phosphorus it can, Edmondson said in opening arguments in the federal case more than 13 years ago. The excess runs into the river, he argued. Phosphorous is the pollutant that makes poultry waste a greater threat to the Illinois River than others because phosphorous is a key food for algae, Edmondson argued, since algae destroys water clarity and drains dissolved oxygen from water.

Current Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond lauded the ruling.

“This is a great and historic day for Oklahoma,” Drummond said. “While this decision has been a long time coming, it is important to note that in the intervening years since the filing of the suit, the poultry industry has made, or is willing to make, strong improvements in waste disposal to ameliorate the extent of the problem. Oklahoma has amazing natural resources that deserve our vigilant protection. We will thoroughly review the judge’s decision and determine the appropriate path forward.”

Drummond is the fifth attorney general for Oklahoma to serve, including Edmondson, since Edmondson filed the suit.

The ruling acknowledges there are other sources of phosphorus polluting the river than poultry litter. For instance, wastewater treatment plants for cities in Arkansas and Oklahoma do release some phosphorous at greatly reduced levels compared to past years.

The ruling also notes Arkansas poultry companies have made efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff, but those mitigation steps do not change the court’s conclusion, the ruling states. Significant damage was done and continues to be done, it says.

Poultry companies also give no effective oversight of their contract growers’ disposal of litter, the court ruled.

“Historically, defendants have done little — if anything — to provide for or ensure appropriate handling or management of the poultry waste generated by their birds at their growers’ houses,” the ruling says. “The evidence adduced at trial establishes that none of the defendants took any steps to do so.”

Read the ruling:

Print Headline: Almost 18 years later, Oklahoma wins lawsuit against Arkansas poultry firms over Illinois River pollution


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