Expert says bacteria in watershed 'danger' to public's health
U.S. Water News Online
TULSA, Okla. — Bacteria levels from land application of poultry waste by Arkansas growers in the Illinois River watershed represent "a real and present danger" to the health of the public, a Harvard-trained expert testified in federal court.
Robert Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was the final witness called by the state in its preliminary injunction case to stop 13 Arkansas poultry companies from disposing of waste in the 1 million-acre watershed.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson says that unless an injunction is granted, by the spring rains the bacteria found in the waste could pose a health threat to hundreds of people who visit the river valley each year.
Lawrence testified that due to the contamination levels in the watershed, people who recreate there need to be informed of the considerable risk they are exposing themselves to.
A moratorium on land application of the litter, Lawrence said, would "not totally eliminate the problem, but it would dramatically reduce the threat."
Poultry company attorney Patrick Ryan challenged that testimony, suggesting that the state did not account for other sources of possible contamination in its research, such as septic tank leaks or the tons of cattle manure produced each year.
Ryan also said there has been no public health risk alert issued by any state agency over conditions there.
"You can't identify a single person, can you, who's ever gotten sick in this watershed?" Ryan asked Lawrence.
After the testimony, poultry company attorneys argued before U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell that the testing used to support the state's case relied on novel methods and implored the judge to treat the science with skepticism.
Later, a Tyson Foods executive called by the poultry companies explained that the contract growers, not Tyson, are responsible for disposal of the litter.
In previous testimony, an expert witness called by the poultry companies alleged that careless work by the firm hired by the state to obtain soil and water samples could have compromised key data in the case.
The expert also testified that the state's sampling team, which he described as "rookies," failed to decontaminate equipment and change gloves between sample sites, and showed pictures of soil probes placed through cow manure piles.
The state estimates that more than 345,000 tons of poultry waste is produced annually in the watershed, with the bulk of that tonnage disposed of in the same area.
More than 1,800 poultry houses are in the watershed, most of them in Arkansas.
In opening remarks last month, Edmondson said the state's evidence would show that the poultry companies' persistent violations of state and federal law "have infested the rivers and springs and wells of the Illinois River watershed with biological pathogens that have created an imminent and substantial threat to human health."
The hearing on the injunction is part of Oklahoma's ongoing lawsuit against the poultry companies for polluting the watershed with chicken litter.
State and environmental officials contend that years of illegal spreading of the poultry waste, which could contain bacteria, antibiotics and harmful metals, is killing Oklahoma's scenic lakes.
Edmondson sued the poultry companies in 2005, saying litter pollution rendered Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma 70 percent oxygen dead and accused the companies of treating Oklahoma's rivers like open sewers.
More than 576,000 acres of the watershed are located in Oklahoma.
Companies named in the 2005 complaint include Tyson Foods Inc., Tyson Poultry Inc., Tyson Chicken Inc., Cobb-Vantress Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., Cargill Turkey Production L.L.C., George's Inc., George's Farms Inc., Peterson Farms Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., Cal-Maine Farms Inc. and Willow Brook Foods Inc.
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